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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Don’t Call Me Unforgiving Because I Seek Justice!

Years ago, I had an encounter with a Holocaust survivor that I will never forget. His name was Howard and the two of us worked together in the Men’s Department at what was then called The May Company, located on Wilshire and Fairfax in Los Angeles. Howard was a delightful Jewish man in his 60’s. He spoke with a thick German accent and was as funny as one could be. Having not spent any time to get to know him, I knew nothing about Howard’s background, but I so wanted to witness to him.

The year was 1972. I had just become a follower of Christ and I knew very little about Christianity and Christ himself, for that matter. In fact, at the time, I didn’t even believe in Christ’s divinity—Yes, you can be a Christian without believing in the Trinity, but that’s a different story for another time. In the 70’s, Christians were big on “End-Times” issues. Christ’s second-coming was right around the corner, yet we were taught things were going to get a lot worse before his return. All one had to do was look at the signs of the time and get ready for the end of the world.

Now, back to Howard.

Howard had just rung a transaction when I “dropped the hammer.”

“Howard, you need Christ in your life because He is coming back soon and things are going to get very bad,” I told him very assuredly.

Slowly, Howard closed the cash register while rolling up his left shirtsleeve. He turned around, looked me straight in the eyes, and with anger in his voice, he pointed to a number tattooed on his wrist and said, “You mean it’s going to get worse than this?” He then walked away in silence to assist a customer.

Today I am glad he walked away from me when he did since I was about to talk to him about forgiveness. Here I was, a foolish young Christian man who knew nothing about who Howard was and what horror and injustice this gentle old man had experienced, yet was ready to “teach” a Holocaust survivor a thing or two about forgiveness.

Why is it that so many of us Christians are quick to demand forgiveness from others? For example, right after the Columbine High School shootings, many Christians were literally demanding forgiveness for the animals who brought so much pain and agony upon all those families. The majority of these Christians weren’t remotely involved with the tragedy or even lived in Colorado. Shouldn’t we, at least, give these survivors a bit of time for grieving and venting in anger– a process so necessary for emotional healing–before demanding forgiveness of them?

In the late 90s, I personally had a very hard time with the concept of those Western Christians who walked the path of the Medieval Crusades, asking forgiveness of all the Arab nations on behalf of what was done to them in the name of Christianity. Being a Muslim background believer, I constantly had to ask forgiveness of myself, but, unfortunately, my Muslim side, being honor bound, kept refusing to accept my Christian side’s apology. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.

After I was fired from my Middle East mission coordinator position, I was deeply hurt and angry and needed to vent. Those who are close to me know that it’s through venting and discussing my frustration that I get the poison of bitterness out of my system. However, there were those who were uneasy about the way I was dealing with my pain.

“Brother, you should forgive because the Bible says so!” they would tell me.

And my response to them was always the following:

“Please don’t pull scriptures on me. I know what the Bible says about forgiveness. As a pastor, I taught from those very verses for 25 years. I know I should forgive, but first you must give me time to heal. I can’t fake it. While dying inside, I can’t say the right Christian clichés to keep you happy. I need to vent, and if what I say doesn’t jive with your Christian standards, then stay away from me until I can live up to those standards.”

Today, after two years of being away from that oppressive system I worked under for six years, I’m not as angry. I believe the healing process is taking place and God is working in my life, which brings me to another misconception some Christians have:

“We still feel an edge and anger in your writings. Forgiveness means you forget and let go,” some might say to me. To which I say, “Bull-dung!”

Please consider my favorite Prophet of the Old Testament, Jeremiah, talking to his beloved people, the Jews of Israel:

How can you say, 'I am not defiled; I have not run after the Baals'? See how you behaved in the valley; consider what you have done. You are a swift she-camel running here and there, a wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her craving—in her heat who can restrain her? Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves; at mating time they will find her. Jeremiah 2:23-24

Here, Jeremiah calls his own people, the very chosen of God, the men and women he would give his life for, a bunch of horny, whorish defiled camels and jackasses because they are following a broken system that is opposed to God’s way. Is there anger, bitterness and resentment in Jeremiah’s voice? Of course there is. I wonder how many of my Christian friends would have accused the YHVH’s prophet of lacking forgiveness. Instead, they are quick to point out that the Jews deserved it.

How about Jesus himself?

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Matthew 23:27-28

Can you sense the anger Jesus is showing toward the Pharisees? I am sure Jesus was not patting these guys on their backs while insulting them. In my Iranian culture, to say, “woe”— vaay in Farsi — to someone is pretty much the equivalent of saying, “You deserve to go to hell”. And that’s exactly what Jesus is saying to those whom, for generations through their teachings and instructions, had kept the Jewish heritage and laws intact.

For all the years I have been a follower of Christ, I have never heard any Christian accusing Jesus of harboring resentment or having an unforgiving attitude toward the Pharisees. In fact, my experience has been totally the opposite. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a pastor preach with glee and an admiration for the way Jesus confronted the religious people of his day, I’d be the one bailing out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac instead of the government. Yet, when I or other believers dare to question some of the Christian leaders of our time, we are accused of not showing Christ-like forgiveness.

Do you ever stop to think that by doing so, we, like Jesus, are seeking justice and truth and our attitudes toward these men have nothing to do with a lack of forgiveness on our side? Is it possible that after 25 years of being a pastor and six years of working within a Christian corporation, I have seen way too much crap to keep my mouth shut? It amazes me how these same Christians demand accountability from any government official — especially if that individual is not a Republican — yet when it comes to keeping their own Christian leaders to the same standards, they refuse to do so less they be accused of lacking forgiveness.

I feel regret for all the years I saw injustice and hypocrisy within the Church and didn’t say anything. I didn’t do it because I was afraid or was trying to whitewash the actions of certain individuals. I simply believed that it was I who was wrong. After all, I am but a converted Iranian pastor from a Muslim background. “Who am I to question the sincerity of my American mentors?” were my thoughts for years.

But today I realize how wrong I was. There is a time and place when we have to demand accountability at the cost of being accused of harboring resentment or unforgiveness in our hearts.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Thank God I Am NOT A White American Male...


The other day I was talking to a friend who is a white American male—Bear with me. I know mentioning someone’s race is not very PC these days, but there is a point to this race calling. He was basically telling me that the people who don’t vote for Obama are racist and if he loses it is because he is black.

“And if he wins, are you willing to admit it is because he IS black? I didn’t vote for either Kerry or Gore, does that make me a racist too?” I asked

“Of course not, you are different,” was the response.

“How am I different?” I asked.

“Well, you are Persian,” was the answer.

“So, you think because I am not white, I can’t be racist?” I asked with a funny look on my face.

“No, that’s not what I meant. It’s this country that is so racist,” answered my friend looking rather serious.

“What do mean, ‘It’s this country that is so racist?” Now, it was me who was serious.

This was not the first time I had had a conversation like this with Americans who honestly believe that we live in the most racist nation in the world and somehow only white people are perpetrating this act of racism. What I find interesting is, here I am, a naturalized American citizen from the Middle East, having to defend America against American-born Christians and non-Christians alike.

Have you noticed how the Chinese, the Koreans, the Persians, the Arabs, the Blacks and the Hispanics can all have their own churches which are called the Korean, the Persian or the Black church of such and such without anyone ever walking out of those churches saying, “My goodness, that church is all Hispanic or all Arab!” or, accusing those churches of being ethnocentric? Yet, I can’t tell you how often I have heard Christians tell me, “Last Sunday I went to an ALL white church!” as if they were referring to a KKK gathering.

I have lived in the United States for almost 40 years. I went through the Iranian hostage taking in the late 70s and the two Gulf Wars when, if the above people were correct, I should have faced some kind of discrimination and yet I can’t prove that at any time in these last 40 years I have experienced any such thing. Even when the pastor of a mega church referred to me as “our token Iranian pastor” in front 900 people, did I take it to be a racist act? No. Stupid and ill advised? Definitely! But, not racist.

This is not to say that there are no racist Americans. There are many of them. But, they come in every shape and color – not just white. But that does not make the whole nation racist.

A few months back, Karen and I went to Montgomery, Alabama for the commissioning of our son, Todd, into the United States Air Force as a Second Lieutenant. While there, we visited Rosa Parks’ Museum. I can’t tell you the emotion I experienced and how I wished I had lived here at the time so I could participate in the Civil Rights marches and have the honor of walking side by side with Dr. King.

As I watched the reenactment of that memorable evening when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, with tears in my eyes, I marveled at a nation where, in the span of only 50 years or so, things have gone from considering the black man so unequal that he was forced to sit in the back of the bus so the white man could sit in the front of the bus to today when a black man – I am aware that Obama is only half black, but he considers himself to be a black man – has the possibility of becoming the president of the same nation, and under my breath I whispered, “God bless America.”

Please compare what America has accomplished in her short history with some parts of Africa or the Middle East where people have been killing each other for hundreds of years because people of tribe A consider people from tribe B to be inferior and therefore worthy of being wiped off the face of the earth. Racism is a disease that plagues every race, color and nation and white people do not have a corner on it.

A few years ago a black pastor asked me the following question:

“Shah, I have tried very hard to befriend the Muslim foreigners who attend the mosque next to my church, but these people won’t even come near me. Why do you think is that?”

“Well, there could be couple of reasons. First, they might be racists and dislike black people. After all, some Muslim countries still use black people as slaves. However, there is a second reason. They are afraid of you,” I responded.

“Why so?”

“Rosa, how many blacks do you know that have been mugged by Iranians?” I asked.

“None!”

“I have two Iranian friends who were mugged by black guys and my third friend’s father was shot to death by a black man. Do you blame these friends of mine for being afraid of blacks in general? Is it possible that your Muslim neighbors might also have friends and relatives who have experienced the same things?” To her credit, my dear friend, agreed with me.

The other night, as I was channel surfing, I came across Chappelle’s Show. Dave Chappelle is a black comedian who, like most ethnic comedians today, gets a lot of laughs by making fun of white people. I guess it is considered comedy when other races make fun of white people. However, when it is done the other way around, it is called racism. To his credit, on some occasions, Chappelle also pokes fun at his own people. On this particular episode, using all black comedians, he did a skit called something like, “If people don’t like you, it could be that you are a jerk and has nothing to do with your race.” Is it possible that some people don’t like me and won’t hang out with me because I am a jerk and my race has nothing to do with it? Abso-freaking-lutely! And this brings me to why I wrote this article.

I am tired of all the America-bashing I hear constantly. Yes, she has done many wrong things in her past—which nation hasn’t?—but she has been quick to fix it. NO, she is not perfect, but, as one who was raised under a totalitarian system, I believe America is still the best nation on the face of the earth. Let’s stop looking at what she should have done right and start being grateful for how far this young country has come to correct her past.

I am willing to bet my last dollar that some of you would never dare to even think about what I have said on this posting lest you be called a racist. But don’t forget, I am not white and therefore, couldn’t possibly be racist and that is why I say, “Thank God I am not a white American Male.”

Saturday, October 11, 2008

MAYBE A CAMEL OR MAYBE A BIRD, BUT NOT A CAMEL-BIRD, PLEASE!

There is a Persian parable about the ostrich, which is called the camel-bird in Farsi. The parable goes something like this:

One day the camel-bird was asked to carry a load and he said, “Why should I? I am a bird”. They said, in that case, “fly” to which he responded, “I can’t. I am a camel”. The same parable applies to many of the Christian organizations today, which can’t decide whether they are a spiritual entity or a secular corporation. If they are expected to act like a corporation, they are quick to tell you, “We are a church.” However, when asked why they are not more Christ-like in some areas of their operation, they are quick to point out, “We are a corporation.” Let me give you a couple of examples.

I heard, recently, a rather large Christian organization announced to her staff members that they weren’t going to get any raises for the next couple of years. Apparently, due to the lack of income, the denomination has been running a deficit for the last few years. As it often happens, after the above announcement, one after another, the leadership of the organization admonished all staff members to be good Christians and work sacrificially by taking on more responsibilities due to the future downsizing. So, in reality, each staff member was asked to work harder for less money, something that I whole-heartedly agree with. As followers of Christ, we ought to be exemplary imitators of our Lord. If we believe in what our Christian employer stands for, then we are bound to give it all we have got to accomplish her mission in this world. My wife, Karen, and I tried very hard to live up to that conviction.

I left a good paying engineering job to become a pastor of a 50-member immigrant church because I believed that was what God wanted me to do. There were days when Karen had to look behind the cushions of the living room couch in the hope of finding some coins to buy milk for our kids. To support our family, Karen, who is probably one of the best executive assistants I know, had to eventually go to work at a mega-church. She worked there for twelve years.

In all the years my wife faithfully worked there, she was only given a one-time raise of $100. As badly as we, at times, struggled with our finances, she never considered looking for a better paying job somewhere else. After all, we felt it was more important to serve God than to seek a better paying job somewhere else. We were taught that if God wanted you to work at that church, you should be willing to receive whatever they offered you. Karen would have probably still been working there if she were not forced to leave. After she accepted a position in a secular company, the pastor of the church personally apologized to me and said, “If I knew Karen was leaving, I would have done all I could to stop her. Letting her go was the biggest mistake our church made this year.”

Having worked for couple of different churches for many years, Karen had never had the luxury of demanding a certain salary. She always took whatever the church offered her. After all, over and over again, we were taught working for God meant money should not be an issue. So, when her new company asked her what kind of salary she expected, She didn’t know how to respond. Needless to say, she took the job and has never and will never look back. “But, what do these two examples have to do with our camel-bird?” you might ask.

In the first case, it is interesting that the same leadership which is encouraging their staff members to make sacrifices—to be camels and carry the load—never demanded the same from themselves because that is not expected of the executives of a cooperation—they act like birds. In the midst of their financial shortfalls, these leaders have continued to remodel their offices, fly first class and give themselves over 100K per year salaries.

In Karen’s case, in 2005, two years after working for the secular company, several people from the above mega-church and the Christian organization I used to work for approached her in the hope to get her to work for them. There was no way Karen was going to leave a job where she had been rewarded so well for her skills. But out of curiosity, she wanted to know what kind of salary these Christian leaders were going to offer her.

In every case the response was, “What? Money is an issue?” In one case I was told, “I don’t know what the salary is. It is somewhere between X and Y amount. Why don’t YOU go to the HR and find out what her salary might be?” Please consider the arrogance that hides her ugly head under the pretence of being spiritual. The man wanted my wife to leave her well-paying job where she was appreciated and compensated accordingly and become his assistant without us having to even dare to ask what her salary might be. For to do so, is considered unspiritual. As a couple of Christ’s camels, we were supposed to feel ashamed and guilty for turning down the opportunity to serve God’s Kingdom because we desired to be adequately compensated for the gifting that God has given Karen. Yet, to every one of these leaders—the birds—the expected Christ-like sacrifice is only for the camels and not the birds. Otherwise, they would willingly give up a few of their luxuries such as remodeling their offices and flying first class to ease some of the financial burdens of their organizations.

Any organization would like the most talented and capable people working for them. Christian organizations are not and should not be any different. However, not wanting to forsake their spiritual obligations as Christian entities, the employees of these organizations are expected not to consider their salaries an issue and instead work for God—basically, get paid next to nothing. On the other hand, when it comes to the executives of these organizations, money IS an issue. While they constantly announce to their constituencies that Christ’s task (preaching the Gospel around the world) cannot be accomplished due to lack of fund, they are all handsomely paid and get to spend God’s money without any accountability because, they say, “This is how a corporation should treat her executive members.”

Having said all the above, please note that there are many churches and Christian organizations who do good by their employees and at the same time are great stewards of what God has given them. By no means am I bringing an indictment against everyone, God forbid. However, to those who are caught in this camel-bird game I say, at the time when more and more Christians are losing their trust in the Church and leaving her, try to win their trust back by, once and for all, making it clear if you are a church or a corporation, a camel or a bird and then act accordingly.

Monday, August 4, 2008

EXCUSE ME WHILE I WHIP SOME CHRISTIANESE OUT OF MY BACK POCKET!

It was the first day of an annual conference of a Christian denomination. The hotel where the conference was taking place was buzzing with people. The lobby was filled with attendees who were checking into their rooms. A group of people who had just checked in was standing in front of the elevators waiting for the next one to take them to their rooms. From looking at their badges, any outsider could tell they all belonged to the same First Church of the Greatness.

When the elevator finally got down to the lobby, with much patience and courtesy, they all let the bellboy carrying several bags get in first. Trying to return the kindness, the young man standing next to the elevator panel, asked each person which floor they were going to and then he would press the appropriate button.

“47,” shouted a lady standing in the back.

“So you are going all way to the top?” asked the young man.

“Yes, I AM going all the way to the top, but ARE YOU?”

Suddenly a hush came over the full elevator. It was one of those moments when pulling a George Carlin’s suggestion on what to do in a full elevator would have been much welcomed. George used to say every time we got into a full elevator, we should make higher and higher dramatic notes as the elevator went higher and higher. Alas, no one had the presence of mind to do something like that. So, understating the lady’s Christianes language, everyone else held his or her breath, waiting for the bellboy’s response.

For a split second a confused look came upon the young man’s face as if he was saying to himself, “What kind of a @#$!% stupid question is that? Isn’t it obvious that, along with everyone else, I am going to the top, too.” But then, Eureka! You could see the light bulb began to flash on the top of his head like a neon sign on the top of a cheap motel in Vegas.

“Yes, Ma’am, I’M going to the top, too,” He responded politely.

But the lady just couldn’t let it go. By witnessing to this heathen, this was her chance to make a point with the people present and show them how to add another notch to their spiritual gun.

“I am not talking just the top, but all the way to THE TOP,” she continued.

By now the man had caught on with the game she was playing. He was doing his best to play as dumb as he could just to get the woman off his back without giving into what she expected him to say.

“Yes, Lady, I am going all the way to the TOP where the pool, the bar and the gym are.”

Recently a friend gave me a book by Anne Lamotte entitled, “Traveling Mercies” In the book Anne talks about how she got “all the way to the TOP”. The contrast between her language and our elevator lady, who represents so many evangelicals, is so striking that while reading the book I cried, screamed and laughed for joy.

Anne did not grow up in a Christian family. Just like me, she grew up during the Hippie era of free love, drugs and booze. By the time she is writing the segment of the book talking about her so called, “conversion” she is a pill-popping alcoholic who had just aborted her unwanted child by a married man.

Every weekend, when she was hungover, she went to a flea market where she could buy the most wonderful ethnic food. Between eleven and one on Sundays, she could hear gospel music coming from a run down church right across the street where she often stopped by to listen. Once a month she went to the church, however, she always stood at the door and never went inside. No one tried to con her into sitting down or staying. She says, “To me, Jesus made about as much sense as Scientology or dowsing.” It wasn’t till a few months later when she finally allowed herself to take a seat on a folding chair at the entrance.

Seven days after her abortion, as she is bleeding heavily, lying down on bed in the dark, she became aware of someone with her, hunkered down in the corner of her room and she knew it was Jesus. The thought of becoming a Christian appalled her. “I turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.”

From that day on, everywhere she went she felt a little cat was following her, wanting her to pick it up, open the door and let it in. A week later, when she went to church, she was so hungover that she couldn’t even stand up for the songs. But this is what happened afterwards.

…I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels… I opened the door to my houseboat, and stood there a minute, and then hung my head and said, “Fuck it: I quit.” I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in now.”

Oh my God! Isn’t that the most creative “sinner’s prayer” you have ever heard? Can you imagine walking a sinner through a prayer like that?

“OK, are you ready to accept Christ into your heart now? Then, close your eyes and repeat after me: Fuck it I quit. You can come in now!”

Being so offended by the word “FUCK”, I know many evangelicals would completely miss Anne’s conversion moment. After all, how could a holy God accept such a filthy prayer? Forgetting that, as Søren Kierkegaard calls him, the “Wholly Other” that I know cares more about the woman’s soul than her using a four-letter word while talking to him.

In responding to her own question, “why everyone is not joining the evangelicals”, in her book, “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation”, Christine Wicker says:

Partly that’s because evangelicals use spiritual language that’s no longer heard in common parlance and because like every strong group, they learn to communicate in a sort of verbal shorthand that has depths of meaning to it but sounds like jargon and nonsense to others.

The self-righteous and “out of touch with reality” attitude of so many of us evangelicals that insist on saying, “We have it all figured out. We got the formula! There is only one way to communicate with God and that is, of course, our American Christianese” reminds me of a message Dr. Tony Campolla once gave to a large group of young evangelicals.

He was talking about world hunger, urging the young Christians to get involved with preventing it, when he said something like the following--I am quoting from memory:

Within the next a few minutes, as I am talking to you, X number of children around the world will die of hunger, but the majority of you will not give a shit about it. And you know what angers me even more? That you are more concerned about me using the word “shit” than you are about the thousands of children dying of hunger.”

As I am writing this blog, there are millions of people around the world who, like Anne, acknowledging a vacuum in their lives, are starved to know something that would fill that vacuum, but majority of us, evangelicals, do not know how to communicate with them. Just like the old Romans, we have decided that anyone who doesn’t speak our tongue must be a Barbarian. We are so used to our Christianese language that no longer are we aware that the rest of the world needs to hire interpreters to even understand us.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Recycle or Produce?

A few years ago, at the evening session of a Christian conference I was attending, the host introduced the guest-speaker, a megachurch pastor, as the greatest thing since Al Gore invented the Internet. In fact, after that introduction, many were left feeling like a bunch of apostates for not sharing the same sentiment towards our guest-speaker.

After that superb introduction, the pastor pulled a PDA out of his coat pocket and began to rattle off some statistics on the growth of megachurches in America. According to his statistics, megachurches were the way of the future; growing twice as fast as anyone ever thought they would. Majority of the conference attendees, mostly pastors of 50-60 member churches, reacted to every piece of his statistics with shouts of praise and “hallelujahs” and who could blame them?

Having been conditioned to believe that pastoring a large church would bring them legitimacy and recognition, which to them, were equivalent to having God’s favor and power, a majority, if not all, of the pastors sitting there dreamed of having a megachurch. So, swelling with pride, they relished hearing how quickly these churches were popping up all over the land, which left them with a glimmer of hope that whispered in their ears, “YOUR church could be next...”

I couldn’t stomach more than a few minutes of the man’s talk and left the auditorium. As I was getting out of the door, a friend who was among the audience text me the following: “Isaiah! Peace, peace, where there is no peace.” referring to the prophet Isaiah rebuking the false prophets of his time for prophesying of a coming peace that would never come. We both felt that the speaker’s message of megachurches being the way of the future for all and any pastor had several faulty premises. Not once did the speaker refer to evangelism as a way to build megachurches.

In her New York Times bestseller, “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation”, Christine Wicker says:

…As for those splendid megachurches, the pride of the evangelical world, they’re dinosaurs and don’t yet know it…Megachurches soon will be like Old West ghost towns, one former megachurch leader said. People will be taking tours of them as examples of a bygone era.

I taught a class on evangelism and discipleship at a Bible college for five years. Many of my students hoped to become pastors of large churches. These students’ philosophy of pastoring mostly focused on what I call, “Christian recycling”—finding the quickest way of drawing Christians from other churches to theirs. The sad and most frustrating part of dealing with this megachurch fascination was that very few of the mentioned students had hardly ever considered evangelism as a means to grow a church. But then again, why should they have? These young men and women were fed a cooked up data that lolled them into believing that someone else must be doing the evangelism since the number of the evangelicals in the US is growing by leaps and bounds.

According to Christine Wicker, if evangelicals really had the numbers they say they have and were growing the way they tell us they are, they would be unstoppable. Christine believes there are three sets of figures when it comes to the number of evangelicals in America:

1. The numbers that are provided by the evangelical organizations such as the Southern Baptists and National Associations of
Evangelicals (NAE) brings the total to 54 million, 25 percent of the adult population.
2. The numbers according to the membership figures from churches belonging to NAE total to 23.6 million.
3. When we look at the numbers church planners really count on, Sunday school or small-group attendance, the total drops
down to only 8 million, a far cry from 54 million that my students were fed to believe.

I know some people might be offended by me using phrases such as “cooked up”, “fed to” and so on. However, I speak from experience.

“How many are you running now?” as if I was a cattle rancher, was a common question I was asked when I pastored. The larger the number the more respect you had so keeping count of attendance is very important for any church, especially, a megachurch. At any megachurch there are ushers who are in charge of, literally, counting heads whenever people meet at the church. I can’t tell you how often I heard these ushers tell me something like:

Last Sunday the pastor told me to change the head-count to a much higher number because from the pulpit he could see there were more people in attendance. But, I know there weren’t that many people at church that Sunday.

I have seen churches double and triple count their attendance to reach a much higher specific number—usually, around the magic number of 10,000 if it’s a megachurch.

A few years ago at an annual convention of a large evangelical denomination, I heard the report of the denomination having planted something like 235 churches that year. HOWEVER, very conveniently, they neglected to say that, in the same year, they had closed down over 200 churches, which left the denomination with a net increase of only handful of churches.

Because of the megachurch phenomenon of our days, the evangelical leaders make it sound as if we are racking up victories the Church never dreamed of, yet, on any Sunday, at majority of American churches, mega or small, over 90% of the attendees are transferred Christians—those who left one church to attend another. I have spoken at churches where 100% of the members were originally from other churches.

My church was different. We worked among Iranian Muslims and Jews. Unlike
Christian background Americans, hoping to find a church they could call home, these Jews and Muslims did not get up on Sunday mornings, going through the Yellow Pages asking each other, “Where would you like to go to church today?” Through years of friendship and trust building, 90% of our members were introduced to Christ by the believers at the Iranian church. My church did not have the opportunity of growing through transferred Christians. Our only means of growth was evangelism and that’s why the church grew ever so slowly. If I remember correctly, in the Great Commission, Jesus did not say, “Go into the whole world and recycle Christians by convincing my followers to leave their churches and attend yours because you offer a better youth or singles’ ministry.” But He commanded us to make NEW disciples.

Being so over taken by a capitalistic attitude of “bigger is better”, the church has lost her bearing and true mission—going into the whole world and making disciples for the Master. In any industry, if you are not producing, you will go out of business and the church is not any exception. It is time for the church in America to get out of recycling business, which might be good for the ecology, but sucks for the Kingdom and start producing.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Slutbucks!

I was using the treadmill at our local gym listening to my iPod and occasionally glancing at several TV monitors in front me when my eyes caught the tickertape running at the bottom of one of the monitors. It said something like, “Offended by the naked mermaid, Christians are boycotting Starbucks.” I later found out that the whole fuss was about Starbucks changing its logo from the mermaid with a bikini-top to a bare-breasted one. OH MY GOD…

Let’s be honest! How many of you have ever looked at the logo on a Starbucks’ cup? I thought we went to Starbucks for its overpriced cup of coffee, which has to be ordered in Italian—it took me a long time learning how to say “tall” instead of “small”, “latte” instead of “with some freaking cream” and recently, watching my favorite game show, the Cash Cab, I found out that "Venti" in Italian means twenty. For all the years of drinking Starbucks, I had never noticed that the logo on the cup in my hand was of a mermaid with a bikini-top, but thanks to boycotters, now we all will. This brings me to the following question: why in God’s name, are so many Christians so preoccupied with sex???

An overweight friend of mine who worked for a Christian organization went on a diet and lost a lot of weight. Like so many overweight people, she had given up trying to look feminine, so for years she had worn over-sized blouses, skirts, pants and muumuus to hide her weight. After losing all that weight, she bought herself a whole new wardrobe, which fit her slim body. Her husband wanted her to look her best.

Seeing her for the first time after she had lost the weight, I was amazed at how gorgeous she looked. At first, I did not even recognize her. No, she did not look sexy or immodest, just feminine. I never asked her this, but I know she felt great about herself. I am willing to bet that because of the way she felt about herself, her productivity at work or in life in general must have improved. The feeling did not last very long. Within couple of weeks, she was pulled into the HR office and was given a thrashing about her clothes and how a Christian woman should not be a stumbling block to her male co-workers. Apparently some of the men had reported her to the HR. Combined with the death of her mother, the rebuke pushed her over the edge and she gained all the weight back. However, the HR never bothered to pull her into the office and give her a talking on how being overweight is not good for HER health. I guess being a stumbling block to MALE co-workers is much greater offense than dropping dead of a heart attack due to one’s weight.

Have you read the book, "Persepolis"? It is written by the Iranian writer and artist, Marjane Sartrapi who writes about her life in today’s Iran. They also made a movie out of the two book series. It is in French with English subtitles and has won several awards. In a part of the book she talks about the day she misses her bus by just a few seconds. Hoping to catch it she begins to chase after it when she hears, “Hey—blue coat! Stop running!” She stops to turn around and face two bearded revolutionary guards armed with their machine guns. This is how their conversation goes:

“Madam, why were you running?”

“I’m very late! I was running to catch my bus.”

“Yes… But… when you run, your behind makes movements that are… How do you say…Obscene!”

Here is a woman who is covered from head to toe. All any man can barely see is her face and still she is told that when she runs her behind moves in an obscene way. I love her response to those morality policemen, “WELL THEN DON’T LOOK AT MY ASS!”

“Yes!” you might say, “But the Bible talks about women being modest.” I agree. Women should dress modestly. However, my problem is defining the term, “modest”. In Iran, for a woman, modesty means to be wrapped in a black shroud from head to toe, and still she can be accused of being immodest by some men.

No, the problem is more with the men who are so preoccupied with sex, i.e. a male-driven Christian organization that changes the acronym, RAC to ARC because according to its new leaders, the RAC could be understood as RAC, which refers to women’s breasts, although the acronym had been used in prior years without any complaints. Another example is a Christian leader who demands a couple of abstract painting, which had been hanging on the office walls for months, be removed because if one were to stare at them long enough one could see women’s breasts.

If I am not mistaken, our Lord’s mandate on not looking at women with impure eyes was given to MEN. Do you know why? Because He knew that we men are visual, that we get excited just by putting the quarter in the vending machine’s slot. It doesn’t matter how many layers of clothing a woman puts on, her behind can still move in what we men might consider obscene. If this is the case, don’t blame the woman. Do what Jesus commanded you, “Quit looking at her ass.”

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Is Obama An Apostate?

Who would have thought that just a few short years after the 9/11 tragedy we would have a man who was born a Muslim and with the middle name Hussein running for the most powerful office in the United States.

One of the hallmarks of Senator Obama’s potential presidency is his promise that as soon as he is elected, he will unconditionally sit across from President Ahmadinejad of Iran and Assad of Syria to discuss peace in the Middle East. In his utmost naiveté, he assumes that these Muslim leaders will be drawn to his gesture for peace, but what he does not understand is that his success will not so much depend on whether he is willing to accept the two Muslim leaders, but whether they will accept him as a legitimate leader worthy of respect. “Why not” one might ask. Well, I am so glad you asked.

The simple truth is that Obama would have three strikes against him before he ever sat down to meet with these Muslim leaders.

The Iranian parliament recently passed a new law that would impose a death penalty on citizens who are regarded as “apostate” from Islam. In the past, the death penalty for apostasy was one of many possible punishments including imprisonment and hard labor. But the new law proposes to make death the sentence for all apostates, according to the Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP).

Article 225:6-7 of section five of this new Iranian government’s Apostasy, Heresy, and Witchcraft law says:

“If someone has at least one Muslim parent at the time of conception but after the age of maturity, without pretending to be a Muslim, chooses blasphemy is considered a Parental Apostate. Punishment for a Parental Apostate is death, but after the final sentencing for three days he/she would be guided to the right path and encouraged to recant his/her belief and if he/she refused, the death penalty would be carried out.” (See full text bellow)

The first thing Senator Obama and his advisors need to understand is that when it comes to the Middle East they are dealing with a shame-based culture. In that culture, unlike most western cultures, the focus of one’s action is not on right versus wrong, but honor versus shame. What matters is whether an action brings one honor or shame. For example, a person from such a culture would be justified to lie, cheat, steal or kill in order to keep his honor.

According to the New Iranian apostasy law, which with some variation is held by the majority of Muslim scholars, Senator Barack Obama, being born to a Muslim father and later becoming a Christian, is considered to be a “Parental” apostate, an offence punishable by death if he lived in Iran. He would be viewed as having disgraced Islam and therefore not worthy of honor. While most Muslims consider Christians to be infidels, they would consider the Senator, an apostate who became a Christian and much less worthy of respect! Should Obama ever sit across from Muslim leaders, from the very start he will be approached as a man without honor. So for him and his supporters to think that Obama’s charm and persona would constitute an asset in discussions with Muslim leaders, is probably well intended but only shows they know absolutely nothing about shame-based societies.

My purpose for writing this article is not to suggest to anyone not to vote for Obama, but to inform my readers of the complexity of the Islamic mindset.

Shah


Section Five: Apostasy, Heresy, and Witchcraft

Article 225-1: Any Muslim who clearly announces that he/she has left Islam and declares blasphemy is an Apostate.

Article 225-2: Serious and earnest intention is the condition for certainty in apostasy. Therefore, if the accused claims that his/her statement had been made with reluctance or ignorance, or in error, or while drunk, or through a slip of the tongue or without understanding the meaning of the words, or repeating words of others; or his/her real intentions had been something else, he/she is not considered an apostate and his/her claim could be heard and justified.

Article 225-3: There are two kinds of apostates: innate (Fetri) and parental (Melli).

Article 225-4: Innate Apostate is someone whose parent (at least one) was a Muslim at the time of conception, and who declares him/herself a Muslim after the age of maturity, and leaves Islam afterwards.

Article 225-5: Parental Apostate is one whose parents (both) had been non-Muslims at the time of conception, and who has become a Muslim after the age of maturity, and later leaves Islam and returns to blasphemy.

Article 225-6: If someone has at least one Muslim parent at the time of conception but after the age of maturity, without pretending to be a Muslim, chooses blasphemy is considered a Parental Apostate.

Article 225-7: Punishment for an Innate Apostate is death.

Article 225-8: Punishment for a Parental Apostate is death, but after the final sentencing for three days he/she would be guided to the right path and encouraged to recant his/her belief and if he/she refused, the death penalty would be carried out.

Article 225-9: In the case of a Parental Apostate, whenever there appears to be a possibility of recanting, sufficient time would be provided.

Article 225-10: Punishment for women, whether Innate or Parental, is life imprisonment and during the sentence, under the guidance of the court, hardship will be exercised on her, and she will be guided to the right path and encouraged to recant, and if she recants she will be freed immediately.

Note: The condition of hardship will be determined according to the religious laws

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Whatever Happened to Honor? Part II

As I was discussing the first part to this article with my community, the discussion took a new turn. That so many Christian leaders often dishonor their subordinates by disrespecting them in various ways was unquestionable. We had all either seen it inflicted upon co-workers or had experienced it personally. What was puzzling to us was why a large number of workers at Christian organizations allow the leaders or pastors to mistreat or dishonor them with regularity?

Why is it that so many capable, well-qualified, rational, and intelligent people working for churches or Christian organizations continue to work under abusive bosses while barely making a living wage? Most of these people will have very little problem getting better paying jobs somewhere else under a more favorable condition, but to them, leaving their current jobs is utterly unfathomable.

Or, even worse, after years tolerating ridicule, marginalization, humiliation while making next to nothing, when the organization finally terminates them because their usefulness has run its course, if given the opportunity, they will not hesitate to rush back to work under the same abusive conditions.

When questioned, a large number of these Christians not only do not acknowledge any abuse they might be experiencing, but they will readily tell you that God wants them to work where they are. To a point, I believe the last statement. I put up with six years of abuse at a place where the management’s motto was, "The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves." because I felt God wanted me to be an anchor of stability for my coworkers. However, I constantly challenged the leadership and demanded that people under them be treated with dignity and honor.

One of the biggest forms of abuse is using God as an excuse to manipulate people into getting them to do your bidding or as I call it, “pulling the God-card.” This way there is no room for discussion. If you say, “God told me to do this or that”, who am I to question God? I also know how often the above phrase is used as an excuse not to face reality. I believe a large segment of the above Christians suffer from what psychologist, Martin Seligman, called “Learned Helplessness”.

Several decades back, psychologist Martin Seligman developed his theory of “learned helplessness”. Subjected to repeated punishment, animals and humans come to believe they have no control over what happens to them, whether they actually do or not. In Seligman’s original experiment, dogs given repeated electrical shocks would prostrate themselves and whine, even when escaping the abuse lay within their power.

Please click on the following links for more details on the above experiment.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness
http://www.noogenesis.com/malama/discouragement/helplessness.html

You might protest, “Shah, you are talking about dogs and electric shocks! Where in heaven’s name do you see that being done to people in any Christian organization?” We don’t use electric shocks, but we have our own ways of beating people into “Learned Helplessness” that border on cultic practices.

According to psychologists the following are some of the characteristics of a cult group, which produce “Learned Helplessness”:

1. The group’s leader is reputed to have the potential of bringing a resolution to the problems of humanity.

To put it in our terms, church members often expect their leaders to bring solutions to the world’s and personal problems through their callings as apostles, prophets, evangelists… (Eph 4) or their gifts of the Spirit, words of wisdom, knowledge, prophesy… (I Cor. 12).

2. The leader is also drawn into believing the grandiose role accorded to him and justifies his actions by referring to the transcendent mission suggested by the group’s philosophy.

I don’t know why so many of us have the tendency to put our leaders on pedestals, treating them as super humans not realizing that by doing so we create the potential for a man to believe in “the grandiose role accorded to him”. This is not to say that the leaders just fall into this trap. Having been made in God’s image, we all have a god-complex and want to rule as such. Very few of us can resist constant praise and accolades aimed at our gifting or style of leadership and not fall prey to thinking that we, somehow, are better than others and called to rule over them.

If a pastor is constantly told how great a teacher, healer, prophet or leader he is, he eventually will come to believe that he is impressive and magnificent. And soon after, if he is ever questioned about his imposing behavior, he will refer you to all his accomplishments and how God has called him to accomplish the church’s mission statement.

3. To ensure stability as a close-knit social system, the group manipulates the activities and views of its members. All members are required to comply with the group’s norms. If they appear to question the values, they will face estrangement, which results in feeling acutely hopeless, uncomfortable and unhappy. This will also prevent members from leaving the group.

Every church or Christian organization I have ever known had its own set of “biblical” norms. All staff or church members were required to follow those “biblical” standards. Within several of these organizations or churches, you were demanded to obey the norms and be grateful for being a part of the entity. Those who dared to question the norms were marginalized, shunned, and labeled as, “ones who dare to touch God’s anointed”. Naturally, fearing a great feeling of stress and alienation, the majority of members complied with what the leadership deemed to be the norms, especially staff members. To control the people and prevent them from leaving the church, it was not unusual to make them feel that the only entity that would ever give them a place or a job was the one they belonged to at the present. So, by leaving the place, a member, no matter how talented, was always in danger of never being able to find a place or a job somewhere else.

What are the outcomes of such treatments? Creating a generation of helpless Christians who would stay in abusive situations out of fear of alienation, rejection, being deemed unworthy, worthless, or being called a heretic.

We Christians shock our people into helplessness, not by electricity, but with our words and behavior. We may not lock people in cages, but we have our way of keeping them within boundaries which are created by the “dos and don’ts” of the organization. So many of our leaders strip people under them of every ounce of dignity, talents and gifting by showing love and attention only when it meets their needs to control the people. By doing so, many Christian organizations have created a whole generation of helpless Christians who have come to believe they cannot effectively function anywhere else except within the particular organization. They have become like the dog, which, after being given numerous electric shocks, feel that being mistreated is his lot in life and there is nothing he can do about it. This psychological treatment is so effective that even after leaving an organization, many Christians, given the opportunity, in a heartbeat, go back to the same abusive place.

There is a happy ending to the above experiment. It was noted that the only way to get the helpless dog out of its cage was to send in another dog that had never been shocked. With the gate left open, upon receiving the first jolt of electricity, the new dog would bolt out of the cage and by doing so, it would teach the helpless dog to get out as well.

May I challenge and encourage all of you to be the restorers of honors lost. Be like the last dog, when it comes to confronting the abuse that is taking place in our Christian communities, go in, speak up and help a friend or two restore their honor by showing them the way out.

"I looked at all the caged animals in the shelter. The cast-offs of human society, I saw in their eyes love & hope, fear & dread, sadness & betrayal. And I was angry. "God," I said, "this is terrible! Why don't you do something?" God was silent for a moment & then He spoke softly, "I have done something," He replied. "I created you.” Author- Jim Willis