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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

If You Don't Change Them, They Will Swallow You UP!

 On the Sunday after 9/11 my message to my Iranian church started by me asking the following question and answer.

Who put a gun to your head and demanded that you leave Iran and come to America?

If you dont like living in America, Ill personally buy you a one-way ticket and send you back to Iran.

Using Jer. 29:4-7, I then went on to show them, as immigrants in this country, what our responsibilities towards America should be. Once I made them aware of our role as immigrants, I then challenged them, as followers of Christ, to put aside our Third World corrupt habits that almost all of us were raised with, and be a light and salt to our community.

Over a year ago, I felt the need to preach the same message again, but this time to English speaking churchesChristians who are born and raised in Americaalong with a long disclaimer repeated throughout my message. I felt the need to include the disclaimer because these days, many Americans take offense to everything, even on behalf of those who are not asking for it. So, I had to start my message with the following warning, which I kept repeating throughout my teaching:

Please be advised that I gave this message to my IRANIAN church, and it is NOT directed at you. By the way, after I was done preaching it, the whole church gave me a standing ovation, so PLEASE dont get offended on their behalf.

My message had to do with change, that of heart, mind, soul and behavior. It was an attempt to help them become more like those who belong to the Community of Jesus. It challenged them to outflowing action that would influence the adverse Iranian community that surrounds them. In doing so, I gave them example after example of the corruption that exists within much of our culture. The type of Third World mentality that is so, so foreign to the majority of American Christians, but so, so natural to us who were born and raised in Iran.

But, why are you giving this message to the American church, one might ask.

Because I am very concerned about the type of society my grandchildren might be facing in America.

In his article, 4 Trends in Christianity That Could Scare You, Ed Stetzer says,

As the Nones (Nominal/cultural Christians) rise in their number, Christian influence on culture will begin to wane. The minority of Christians in a culture will begin to feel even more like a minority when more nominals become Nones. As people no longer claim to be Christians, Christianity will be further marginalized

Although Mr. Stetzer considers this to be something positive for the future of the churchShe then will be full of REAL (Whatever that may be according to him) Christians.he doesnt take into account the vacuum this lack of Christian influence will create in the society. Those of other mentality/cultural mindset, i.e., Muslims, will not sit back and wait for the Christians to easily once again get their influence back. These non-Christians will fill the void.

In his recent column in Los Angeles Times, How corruption abroad threatens U.S. national security, Doyle McManus wrote,
 We often look at corruption as a secondary issue in international affairs: as a moral problem that allows Third World governments to steal from their people and gets in the way of equitable economic development…But the lesson of the collapse of the Iraqi army, an army built with $25 billion in U.S. aid, is this: Corruption isn't only a moral issue; it's a national security issue, too.
That's the message of Sarah Chayes, a former reporter for National Public Radio, who spent 10 years working on economic development projects in Afghanistan — only to find that corruption was getting in the way of nearly everything she did.
 I want the American church to understand what happens when she losses her influence in society, an influence that is directly related to the teachings of Christ. I long for the church to realize what an unscrupulous society awaits her if she doesnt stand up for Christian Principles and offer the life changing teachings of Christ to those around her, especially those of us from the Third World.

After hearing my message at his church, a member, a white American, who was offended by what Id said, asked the following question,

So, what is the redemptive value in this message?

My answer: If you dont change my mindset with the teachings of Jesus, I WILL swallow you up.




Monday, December 1, 2014

Not At My Church!

The name of my organization is Shahzam Factor...Seeing church different. The tagline has to do with something I have begged the American church to do for over 30 years, CHANGE. The following article is about that very subject. It's written by my friend CK who, from time to time, will be doing guest appearance on this blog.                                                                                             Shah
                                                                                                         
Why is it so difficult for us to realize the need for change? From churches and businesses, to non-profit organizations and even families, so often we fail to see the need for change. It seems that we so often need to come to the brink of disaster before we come to terms that if we don’t change, our organization, our relationship, or our church will fail.

As I have researched “change” in my graduate studies the past two years, it has struck me how difficult change is for people, people in some of the most successful companies, people throughout history, even people in the Bible. Let me give you a couple of examples.

World Class Medical Center Nearly Closes
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts is one of the leading hospitals in the world. The quality of this institution is due in part to the long standing and coveted relationship with Harvard University. Many of the doctors who practice and teach at the medical center also teach at Harvard. However, this institution nearly closed. For years, the medical center was losing money. During this time, several CEOs hired reputable consulting firms to determine why the medical center was consistently losing money. Report after report was submitted to the executives, board of directors, and the chief medical staff. Yet nothing changed and the medical center continued to lose money. It wasn’t until Paul Levy was appointed CEO in 2002 that things changed.
In Levy’s first few months on the job, he faced the fact that the medical center was nearly bankrupt, and that the governor and city officials were planning to take possession of the institution. But Levy had a plan to revamp operations and was able to convince the governor to delay the closure for six months. Confronted with the fact that they were about to lose everything, the medical center’s executives, board of directors, medical staff, and employees finally saw the need for change and made some tough decisions. Over those six months, Levy spent a great deal of his time explaining what needed to change—from leasing space on the expansive campus, and cutting jobs, to refining operations, and restructuring the medical staff and board of directors. He also communicated how the changes would take place and secured the support of everyone involved. His plan worked. Today, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is going strong.

Resistance to Change in the Bible
The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, can be seen as a book about people who resisted change. Prophet after prophet warned the Israelites to change their ways otherwise judgment would come. But they didn’t and judgment did come—they were captured and displaced. In the New Testament, Jesus proclaimed the message of peace, love, and reconciliation to God. He performed the most powerful act of love, ever. Yet, people who heard his message and saw miracles did not believe him or change how they lived their lives. For more than 2,000 years millions of people who have heard the gospel refused to repent, to believe, to love, to receive grace, and to see the need to change their lives.
Any believer, who has evangelized, especially pastors, would probably understand how difficult it is for people to change their beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. However, believers, especially pastors, are the very people, who need to realize the need for change. Modern-day prophets—the statisticians and researchers—are sounding the warnings. The Hartford Institute of Religion Research estimates fewer than 20% of Americans actually attend church every Sunday, more than 4,000 churches shut down every year, and between 2010 and 2012 less than half of churches added any new members. In June 2014, CharismaNews published an article by Ed Stetzer, examining trends, which paint a picture of a dwindling church. In their book, “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore”, Joani and Thom Schultz show how church membership is declining and why. Research conducted by Steve McSwain, author and consultant, was published on Huffington Post showing statistics that the church is in decline across different denominations.
Are we going to be like the Israelites and ignore the prophets? Will church leaders be like the doctors at Beth Israel Medical Center and disregard the research only to say “Not at my church”? Are you going to be like those whom you have shared the Gospel with and yet, never saw the need to change? We have passed post-modernism and entered a new age when EVERYTHING is changing. Right or wrong, People who were once employed are becoming free-agents; schools are shifting from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered learning; established industries are being threatened by new business models; social media has changed how people communicate and the list goes on. With all of the research showing that church attendance is declining, and every aspect of society changing, are you able to see a need for change in the church?

                                                                                                                    By CK Miller, guest blogger

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Us Against Them!


“I am sick and tired of being called derogatory names,” bemoaned my friend. 

“Just because I believe in traditional marriage, that doesn’t make me a homophobe. If  I say I am against killing the unborn, that doesn’t mean I am against women exercising their rights. I have no problem with immigrants. For God’s sake, I am an immigrant myself. However, I am against illegal immigration. Why should that make me a xenophobe? I am NOT a racist when I talk about the absence of fathers in the black community. Don’t these people realize that all this name-calling prevents us from having civil conversations that may result in solving some of these issues?” 

His woes reminded me of what we, the followers of Christ, for years, have done to ourselves, and those outside the church. 

If you attended a white evangelical church, you had to be a Republican. No Democrat could survive the criticism in those churches. On the other hand, in a black church, you were an Uncle Tom if you were a Republican. Today, this attitude is fiercer than ever before. I have Christian friends who have cut off relationships with other Christians purely for political reasons. 

The sins of the church toward “outsiders” are many. Once a year, my friend, Pastor Phil, sets up a tent in a public place and uses it as a confessional booth. Inside the tent he dresses up as a monk and when people walk in to confess, he is the one who confesses the sins of the church to them. I am no Phil, so I limit my confession of the churches’ sin to only one example. 

For years, the church singled out the gay community and pounded on them. We would more readily accept a supposed repented murderer to our fellowship than a Christian gay man/woman who has spent a lifetime serving God with all sincerity while struggling with his/her sexuality. We’d be more willing to listen to any sexual struggles a heterosexual might have with his/her sins, but hardly ever willing to hear of the struggles of a gay man or woman. 

And by doing so, we have created a culture of “US” (the righteous Christians) against “THEM” (those who don’t agree with us, the righteous Christians. 

The fact that those who are in Christ are called righteous is a biblical reality (2 Cor. 5:21). However, according to Jesus, the righteous person is poor, humiliated, desperate, hungry, thirsty, persecuted and… (Matthew 5:1-12)  But, even more important, this righteousness or rightness with God isn’t the result of some personal achievement.  As Tugwell says, 

…the trouble with their (Pharisees) outstanding righteousness was that, all too easily, it could be viewed precisely measured, so that at the certain point, you could say that you had now achieved it. This meant that it could all too easily come adrift from its original inspiration in devotion to God and become self-sufficient.

It is against this self-achieved and measurable righteousness that Jesus speaks of.  The self-righteousness that proudly stands up and proclaims, “God, I thank you that I am not like those people…” Luke 18:12—The kind of self-righteousness that sets US against THEM.  

Let there be no misunderstanding. I strongly believe in right vs. wrong. Unlike some who accuse others of intolerance because the so called, “intolerant” happens to distinguish between good and evil, I believe in being objective distinguishing between right and wrong. However, my objectiveness and effort in doing right doesn’t make me MORE righteous. As I remember, Jesus said something like, after doing all that we should have done and refrained from all that we should have refrained from, we’re still useless servants. What conveys the above humble attitude must be the way we communicate what we believe.

For example, I believe the definition of marriage should be reserved for a union between a man and a woman. Putting the Bible aside, this has been a universal truth that every society, culture and ethnicity has believed and practiced since the beginning of time.  In an ideal world, my definition of marriage should not set me against those who don’t agree with me, but we don’t live in that world yet. Because of what I just said, the reality is that many will call me names like homophobe, xenophobe, racist and… That I can’t help, but the way I react to those who don’t agree with me is something I CAN control.  And this is where I’ve so often come short forgetting that ultimately, as a follower of Christ, my goal must be winning people’s hearts and souls and not an argument. 
—————————— 

It’s a day before the election in California. The fate of Prop 8  (The proposition against same sex marriage) is going to be decided tomorrow. As I’m opening my living room windows facing the street, I notice my neighbor, Ted, walking his dog. Ted and Eric (not their real names) are our gay neighbors whom we’ve know for the last 24 years. They’ve been together longer than many Christian couples I know.  We have been to each other’s homes for dinner many times and have a good relationship.

“Hey Ted, I just wanted you to know how I’m going to vote on Prop 8 tomorrow,” I screamed out of the window.

If you know me, you know that I’m one of the most transparent people you ever come across—and sometimes to a fault. And this was one of those times. In my way of thinking, I wanted my neighbor, the person I have know for a few years now, love and have a very high respect for to know where I stood. This was my way of saying, 

“Thank you for accepting me as a friend even though we don’t agree on this subject.”

Ted laughed and says something like, “Shah, we all know how you’re going to vote.” And walked away.

About a year later, as Karen and I sitting in Ted and Eric’s living room waiting for dinner to be served, Eric, Ted’s partner, very sternly faced me and with tears in his eyes said, 

“What do you have against me marrying this man that I love so much?”

The question completely catches me by surprise. I’m blindsided and was at loss for words. His crying makes me cry.  I’m suddenly faced with the fact that my statement of a year ago, how be it, coming from a very innocent and pure motive, has hurt people I care for.  It’s very easy to disagree with nameless or faceless “Them” out there, but it is a whole different world when those “Them” are your friends. 

“I have nothing against you getting married. My opposition is to changing the definition of marriage,“ I respond

“What do you mean, “ he demands while crying.

“By changing the definition, we’re opening the Pandora’s box which will come back to haunt us.”

“No! It won’t.”

As much as I care for this couple (and they know it), and as much as I do not want to see my friends hurt or upset by/with me, I have to stand up for my convections/values. And so does he, for that matter. 

We go on crying and arguing. 

At the end, we come to the conclusion that we’re not about to change each other’s mind, so with my wife and Eric watching us rather uncomfortably, we hugged and sat down to eat dinner. I love Ted and Eric not because they agree or disagree with me, but because they’re my friends made in God’s image.

A few years later, when Prop 8 is overturned by the Supreme Court, as much as I disagree with the decision, I text Ted with one word, “Congratulation!”
———————————

I’ll leave you with these words,

To the Christian community, expressing God’s love towards those with whom we disagree should not be confused with agreement with their point of view. While we should hold firm to our Judeo-Christian principles, we must continue to love because Christ commanded us to do so.

To the gay community, please don’t reject me because I am willing to tolerate you, but not celebrate you. As much as I detest using the word, “tolerate” within the context of this article (It sounds like painfully putting up with something or someone, which is not my intention at all) I am using it because, strangely enough, it is a very acceptable word within the gay community. I may disagree with your point of view, but I am NOT against you as a person.

And this, my friends, is the key to a civil discourse.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Preaching Butt-Naked



On that Wednesday night, I started my message by asking my audience the following question:

“Coming to church, did any one of you see the man standing butt-naked at the off ramp of 118 Freeway and Porter Ranch? He was holding a sign saying something about God judging the nakedness of America.”

“If you’d seen him, would you have called the police?” I continued asking.

“I almost did! But first I decided to talk to him. So I got out the car and asked him why he was doing such a stupid and disgraceful thing in God’s name.”

“God told me to do so!” Shouted back the man.

With much indignation in my voice, I asked the people, “Can you believe this lunatic? Would God EVER ask us to do something so humiliating, so shameful? Would He EVER expect us to do an act that might make us feel uncomfortable?”

I then went on to say, “Before answering my questions, let me read something to you.”

In the year the field commander, sent by King Sargon of Assyria, came to Ashdod and fought and took it, God told Isaiah son of Amoz, “Go, take off your clothes and sandals,” and Isaiah did it, going about naked and barefooted.      Isa. 20:1-2

“I believe the word naked means butt-naked since it’s the same Hebrew word used to describe Adam and Eve’s appearance in the Garden. However, even if you believe it means stripped-down to one’s underwear, as some argue, it was still an extremely shameful act for a Jewish man to perform. After all, Isaiah didn’t live in America where it’s fashionable for men to wear their pants at their knees and their underwear pulled up to their chins.”

“So, my friends, in order to make his point, the Lord might/will ask his servants to perform acts that are uncomfortable, shameful and even indecent by our standards. The Bible is filled with incidents like that.“

A few years ago I had a very strange spiritual experience that was quite unusual and humiliating. Personally, I would have never sought such an experience. In fact, earlier, I’d mocked those who had experienced it. It didn’t live up to my theological standards. Hey, I was a seminary graduate who had the Creator of the universe all figured out.

On the surface, the experience was not only humiliating, but also foolish and downright weird. However, through that incident, I came to know my Savior and his love for me like I never felt and understood before. It created in me a deeper love for God and a longing for more of him in my life. I began to seek him like the addict Origen talks about when he says, “Without ceasing, the soul searches after the Bridegroom, the Word, and when it finds him, it looks for him again like an addict, in other things as well.” By the way, I am well aware that Origen, an early Church Father, didn’t have an orthodox Christology; however, I also believe that all truth is God’s truth.

Unfortunately, my experience didn’t sit well with some of my more theologically sophisticated Christian friends because it didn’t jive with their understanding of the Bible. Regardless of how much that experience had increased my desire to seek my Lord in a much deeper way, they severed their relationship with me. As if, like the blind man healed by Jesus, that was going to make me deny the reality of what had taken place in the inner most part of my being—that deep sense of God’s presence in my life.

Let me finish this post with a challenge to my readers. The core desire of my ministry, Shahzam Factor, is to see church different (the incorrect English is intentional). To see church differently, many of us Christians need to experience the Lord in a new way acknowledging that:

The newness inherent in any situation of encountering with God is brought by him, not by us, and the newness it calls for in us is not a newness of physical or psychological or intellectual experience, it is simply a newness being given to him (and that, too, is not a matter of psychological or any other kind of experience in itself, though it may, of course, lead to or involve some kind of transformation of experience of life).               Simon Tugwell

The Psalmist says, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” When was the last time YOUR soul longed after God with that intensity? Please note that I am not asking how much you love to read or teach the Bible. I am not asking you how much you long to fellowship with the believers, serve others, or tithe, but thirst after God and his presence in your life.  What if to fulfill that longing, God requires you to do something humiliating. Will you be willing to do so? Or at least, will you be willing to rejoice with a friend who is willing to be humiliated so he/she can draw closer to God?


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Do I Have To Like My Neighbor?

A few years after Karen and I were married, we started attending a small Charismatic church in our neighborhood. Our small and friendly church was literally adjacent to a very conservative church—we shared a common retaining wall. Years earlier, the church had purchased a piece of property from our church to build a larger parking lot. One would think that an act like that would create a rather cordial relationship between the two congregations, but au contraire.

Both churches held their services simultaneously. Every Sunday, as soon as I got out of our car, I would start waving at our neighbors attending the church next door. In all the years we attended church there, none of our Christian neighbors ever waved back at me. Somehow, their more correct theology prevented them from showing the love of Christ to those Christians whose theology was not quite as sophisticated as theirs. I often wondered, “Isn’t loving our neighbors as ourselves a part of Christ’s greatest mandate to his followers? Even if they considered me a heathen dog, I still deserved some crumbs off their righteous table, as the Grecian woman said to Jesus.”

By the way, we, the Charismatic believers, might think we are more ecumenical than other denominations, but when it comes to loving our neighbors as ourselves, we have our own unique issues. I attended a Charismatic mega church for years. Next to the  property was a Masonic temple. During all the 12 years that I attended church there, I never paid any attention to our Mason neighbors. After all, they were a bunch of demon-possessed people who should have been avoided at any cost.

I will never forget the day when my friend Terry, a staff member at the mega church, was asked by the leadership to inquire into the possibility of purchasing the Masonic temple. This is what the temple’s caretaker said to Terry, “You people have been our neighbors for 14 years. Not once have you even acknowledged our presence, and when you finally have, it’s because you want us out of the neighborhood.”

In one of my earliest posts, “Are You A Heat Waver”, I asked the following question: if you the individual (If you’re a pastor, I’m not talking about your church building, or your church members, but you and your family.) move out of your neighborhood tonight, will your neighbors miss you tomorrow? If not, why not?

As Dallas Willard said, “The key to understanding the teachings of Jesus still remains: Loving our neighbors as ourselves in the power of God.  And when you think about what that means, you realize that if that were done, almost every problem that we have in our cities would be solved. All we have to do is to simply follow Jesus’ words.”

Recently, at a meeting related to the Neighborhood Initiative, a movement started by my dear friend, Lynn Cory, a pastor shared with the 60 pastors present the difficulty he had in connecting with his neighbors. “I’m in a tough neighborhood. I don’t know how to approach my neighbors,” he said. I suggested that he starts waving at anyone who walked or drove by his house. Yesterday, I received this video clip by him (It might take a while to load).

It’s amazing what a genuine act of kindness through the love of Christ can do.

PS. If you’re interested in reaching out to your neighbors, may I suggest the book, Neighborhood Initiative written by Lynn Cory? You can buy it on Amazon, or get it directly from: www.neighborhoodintiative.org

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Gays And The Persecution Of Christians...


Coca-Cola removed the images which were published on its website
As I was watching the news, there they were, a group of gay activists pouring Coca Cola down the gutter in front of the company’s global headquarters in Atlanta. This was the US gay community’s way of protesting the poor treatment of gays in Russia.

“But, what did Coke have to do with the Russian government’s poor treatment of gays?” one might ask. Well, in a few days, Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics, and as usual, Coca-Cola is sponsoring the American athletes participating in the games. The protesters were urging the company to call for a repeal of Russia’s anti-gay laws before 2014 Winter Olympics.According to the group, more than 140,000 All Out members sent messages to the company’s CEO urging Coca-Cola to speak out against Russian anti-gay propaganda.

As I watched the news report, I marveled at the US gay community’s support for the persecuted gays in Russia, and began to compare their action with the US evangelical churches reaction to the worldwide persecution of Christians. By the way, the issue here has nothing to do with one’s acceptance or rejection of the gay lifestyle. However, it has everything to do with opposing oppressive governments, or regimes that persecute, mistreat, or harm those who believe the same as you do.

I did a search on the Internet to see when was the last time a group of US Christians protested to bring attention to the persecuted church around the world. I ran across a lot of articles on the subject of persecution, or articles where you are encouraged to send emails to some governments demanding the freedom of this or that Christian. There were articles about the Pope speaking against the persecution of Christians in some Muslim countries, but nothing about even a handful of Christians actually showing up anywhere in the US to bring attention to this crucial subject. Somehow, praying, writing emails, or expecting the US government to protest on our behalf should be enough.

Speaking of the US government, let’s assume it was Iraq that had conquered America. Do you know one of the first things they would do? Turn many of our churches into mosques. We, not only didn’t do such a thing, but the church in Iraq is much worse off today than it was under Sadam’s regime. Governments and politicians, in general, do what’s expedient and beneficial to them. It took the US government over 1000 days before they even protested the arrest of American Pastor, Saeed Abedini in Iran. By the way, he’s still in prison.

On the other hand, there was my good friend, Eddie Romero, a Chicano US pastor from Southern California, who, on behalf of five imprisoned Iranian Christians, went to Iran to purposely get himself arrested by the government and bring attention to the persecuted church. Although the Christians in general applauded him, there were some who thought he was crazy. “His action can bring more harm to the Christians in Iran,” they said. To which Eddie replied, “For too long we have stood behind the walls these governments have erected and tried to communicate with them by throwing emails and letters of protest over the wall in the hope of making a difference. I want to go in and make them talk to me face to face.” I was honored to be a part of the team that helped Pastor Eddied fulfill his goal. By the way, a week after Pastor Eddie was deported back to the US, one of the five he was protesting for was released from prison.

Come dream with me. Wouldn’t it be an amazing event if the Christians in this country called a march on DC to protest on behalf of the persecuted church around the world?  If for nothing else, the march will encourage all our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world to stand fast and know they are not forgotten.