Monday, January 25, 2016

Why the God vs Allah Debate is Important – 4 Obstacles to Overcome

More than a month after Wheaton College decided to take disciplinary action against associate professor Larycia Hawkins, the debate over the central issue of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God continues. 

Friday, Christianity Today offered a summary article of the extensive occasional paper offered by the Evangelical Mission Society (EMS). This morning, David Garrison, author of “Winds in the House of Islam” and President of Global Gates, offered his well-informed response to the core question. I encourage you to read them both.

Debate is healthy as long as it leads us, individually, to challenge our own presuppositions and not just accept the status quo of our theological constructs. We are a people of reformation because we value rethinking what we do know and understand. It is always healthy to rethink our positions with an open mind so that we don’t become the Pharisees that Jesus needed to correct, who were stuck in old thought patterns that hindered other people’s access to God. 

The importance of the God vs Allah debate must likewise challenge our presuppositions about Muslims. There are at least a few obstacles to overcome for the sake of the Gospel: 

I.                     Fear of Muslims

As I have interacted on this question, I find it alarming the amount of fear that exists amongst U.S. Christians towards Muslims. I was even accused of heresy by one Facebook ‘friend’ for simply posting the link to the scholarly EMS occasional paper addressing this question. The very idea that Christians and Muslims could be worshipping the same God seems to illicit a visceral response from some. The media has done a disservice to the American people by drumming up unwarranted fear of Muslims. A leading Presidential candidate is stirring this fear by declaring that we need to close our borders to all Muslims. Certainly the ISIS threat does require sound policy considerations by our government but fear is not a healthy response, even as our national history informs us. Fear has no place in the life of a Christ follower. How do we move beyond the fear into a healthy Christ-like view of Muslims? A more robust grace centered Christology must be the answer (2 Timothy 1:7-9). 

II.                   A Caricature of Allah

Thinking about this core question is important if it helps Christians to move past any caricature of Allah as other than an Arabic word for God. There is some thinking that Allah is a “moon god” because the Islamic flag has a crescent moon. But do Muslims believe they are worshiping a pre-Islamic “moon god?” Of course not. They believe they are worshiping the God of Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Not only is such a caricature of Allah uninformed of the origins of Islam, it is insulting to 1.6 billion Muslims. We need to pursue with intellectual honesty the answer to this question, not give into portrayals that lack historicity. Misrepresenting what others believe is unhelpful in sharing Jesus with them, especially when they have an honor/shame worldview. Can we move beyond the caricatures while reconciling the difference we have between two-thirds of the world’s population? Yes, as we study the question for its cross-cultural mission implications (1 Corinthians 9:22-23). 

III.                 A Demonization of Muslims 

I have dear Christians friends who must think they are doing some service to God by posting memes that demonize Muslims. Yes, there are certainly cultural practices that need to be addressed in the Islamic world but we must avoid generalizations and stereotypes of all Muslims. The Islamic world is a huge diverse people with good and bad, just as in any culture including our own. Let’s instead apply the Golden Rule, even on Facebook. This debate can be important toward that purpose since it demonstrates we have much to learn about Muslims, their beliefs and culture. Are we willing to enter into their world, their hurt, pain and fears to share Jesus with them or do we simply want to portray Muslims as evil and towards what end? I pray for the first, for such a time as this, toward the eschatological mission of the Church (Matthew 24:14). 

IV.                Lack of Proper Focus

Many Evangelical leaders have weighed into the conversation on theological grounds, arguing from a soteriological perspective while dismissing the philosophical. But what about the missiological? No one I have read or spoken with who is of the “same but different” camp is suggesting that there is not a dichotomy of how salvation is understood between Muslims and Christians.  As I have previously pointed out, Muslims believe they are born forgiven whereas Christians believe we are in need of God’s forgiveness available only through Jesus Christ. Our understanding of the person and work of Christ is clearly different, with some similarities. But the Biblical example in both John 4 and Acts 17 is that people worship in ignorance without the revelation of whom the Messiah is for them. It is important that we have a proper focus with regards to the answer to this question. Isn’t the question we, as Christ-followers, need to be asking is how do we make Christ known to Muslims? Let’s hope so, because that’s our commission (Matthew 28:19-20). 

Last week I had the pleasure of being with Dr. Darrell Bock, one of the foremost theologians today and the head of Intercultural Studies at DTS. I asked Professor Bock his thoughts on this very question, “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” His response in short was “Yes and No.” To that, I say Amen! This answer should inform us that the question is not as black and white as we would like. We live in a complex world with complex issues. The “No” part of the answer should challenge us to think as messengers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20) in a diverse culture, which was the subject Professor Bock was addressing. 

Do we care enough for the least the last and the lost to ask the right questions? 

It is vitally important today that we overcome the obstacles of our preconceived ideas about Muslims so that we can respond properly informed to their spiritual needs to know Jesus and worship God in spirit and in truth. That too is the way of Living Sent Today.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Journey to the One God to Whom We All Cry Out

We have heard it said, "life is a journey." Coming to faith in Jesus is often a journey of many steps....for all peoples. Some of us have a long way to travel. Here are two stories worlds apart. 

The story is told of a Muslim woman who came to follow Jesus after years of Bible study. Today as a follower of Jesus, and a highly gifted evangelist, it is reported that she often says, “my people have always had God (Allah), the problem is they have been without a savior!  Now Alhamdulilah (“praise be to God”), through Jesus my people and I have eternal life, and we know more fully the God we have always cried out to.” 

Another story. I grew up on Long Island in a spiritually dysfunctional home. My mother, a devout Roman Catholic, would drag my siblings and I to church religiously. It seemed there was always a Saints Day requiring we attend mass. Weekly Confession behind the curtain was part of the ritual.  My father, an agnostic, would often bash the catholic church at the family dinner table. Dad only went to church at our 1st communions, confirmations, weddings and family funerals.

At the age of eighteen, and spiritually confused, I rejected religion and became an atheist. I had a mental construct about God before I rejected that concept. God was cruel (what kind of God would require a young teenage boy to go to confession every Saturday and be appeased by seven “Our Fathers" and five “Hail Mary’s”). God was watching my every move ready to strike me down for my youthful indiscretions. Who needed such a god, if one even existed? 

I didn’t want any part of God so I turned away from my concept about God to no God. Jesus was a myth, not unlike the tales of Paul Bunyon or Johnny Appleseed. Ancient man needed some hope to hold on to and somewhere along history created this idea about an all-powerful deity. But there was no evidence for God that I could find at the time. The universe was all there was. 

My wife, Debbie, grew up in a traditional Methodist home. Her family went to church together every Sunday. God was real, beliefs about Jesus were taught, and I even visited her church from time to time. I found it dry and boring but since I wanted to be with my then girlfriend I occasionally went along. I had some concept of God as distant but to be worshipped, if that was what you were taught. Jesus was the incarnate (at Christmas), crucified and resurrected (at Easter) “savior of the world” but I had no idea what that meant. 

In September 1984, prior to getting married, we were at a weekend convention. On Sunday morning we were encouraged to attend a “non-denominational worship service,” whatever that was. Over 10,000 people packed a stadium to listen to a “Gospel message.”  I had never heard one before. The preacher was informing us that if we didn’t know Jesus we had a better get an “asbestos suit” because it was going to get hot where we were heading. He instructed us to come forward and we could be “saved” by getting our “fire insurance.” I went forward. 

There is more to my personal testimony over the next 12 years but suffice it say Jesus remained a distant idea. It was not until January 23rd, 1997, at the age of 36, that I came to faith in Christ, surrendering my life to his Lordship. That evening I cried out to God, “God, if you’re real you need to change things!” 

My point here is that I had a changing, developing, often confused concept of God throughout my life prior to my “coming to Christ.” Because I lived in a western culture my concept of God was informed by a Christianized worldview. But it wasn’t until that evening, alone and broken in my car, that I cried out for God to reveal himself to me that he finally did. I learned much about God over the next year as I devoured the Bible, reading from cover to cover a few times. That cemented my faith. 

There are not multiple Gods who changed with my understanding. My rejection or wrong ideas about God didn’t change who God is. My “born-again” experience on that cold evening in the January 1997 did begin to change how I understood God. I had an experience with the living God, a new revelation birthed in my heart, as the work of the Holy Spirit. And, then it all began to make sense. I still needed to learn, to grow, to study, to pray for God to reveal even more of himself to me. 

One day Jesus sat down at Jacobs well and a Samaritan woman was there. A fascinating conversation ensued. The Samaritans were a despised Abrahamic people. Jesus tells this woman, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22). Jesus revealed himself to this woman and explained who he was in relation to what little she understood about God. 

Salvation is not a work of mental assent, trying to figure out who God is. Salvation is a work of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) revealing who God is for us through Christ (John 1:18) that changes everything (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are all given a natural revelation through the creation that tells us something about God (Romans 1:19). Our concept of God gets distorted and twisted by sin and demonic influence but that concept is there, in every human heart (Romans 2:15), so that we are without excuse (Romans 1:20). 

Notice what Jesus does not say to the Samaritan women. He does not say, “You Samaritans are worshiping another god” or “You Samaritans are worshiping a false god.” Or worse, “You Samaritans are worshipping Satan.” Rather he simply says, “You don’t understand God yet so I will tell you about him…He’s me!”  Until we are "saved," until Christ is revealed, God makes little sense. But that doesn't change who God is.

We need to embrace the idea, for the sake of the Great Commission, that others, like Muslims, actually do have a concept about the one true God. It may be a wrong idea or an incomplete idea. They do not worship in "spirit and truth" for they cannot worship what they do not know "more fully." It's our task to tell them the Good News so that they do know. 

The significant point, found in the ministry of Jesus and the Apostle Paul (Acts 17), is that people do worship God in ignorance__ until Christ is revealed. Our responsibility in Christ is to make known the God who is there. 

The Gospel is God, the Father desiring to have a relationship with us, revealed in Christ, the Son, who has made a way to understand his plan and purposes through the Holy Spirit. Jesus is revealed in the Bible so we can find him there and the Holy Spirit opens our minds to understand the Word of God. 

There is much debate over whether Allah and God are the same but we're asking the wrong question. First, Arabic Christians and Jews prior to the dawn of Islam used the word “Allah” to refer to the deity. So let’s not debate semantics. Second, there are various opinions (for an extensive treatment go here) on this questions among experts so the answer is not a simple “yes or no.” The better answer may be “Yes, but…” which then leads other questions. 

The better question for Christ followers is how do we bring the Gospel to those to whom Christ has not yet been revealed? For there is only one God for all, in all, over all, in whom we live, move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

We need to move beyond the debate of “God vs Allah” into the fullness of Christ revealed. We need to cry out to God for the salvation of all so that many more may know that Jesus is Lord and begin Living Sent Today.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Intersection of Faith and Politics: Fighting the Real Battle in 2016!

Did you watch the Republic debate last night? I did. Barely. Not much of a debate, more like a brawl again. What really gets accomplished in these verbal sparring sessions? 

Now the 2016 Presidential Campaign kicks into high gear with the start of the Primary Season (February 1st to June 15th). It will be a contestable and no doubt civilly detestable 5 months from February to June. Battles will be fought among candidates even more ferociously, pundit will battle pundit and their Social Media followers will battle each other. 

It’s going to be a glorious time…if you still think politics are important. I certainly used too, especially in 2008 and less so in 2012. But if the past eight years prove anything, they prove that politics aren’t really all that important. Politics today accomplish little good, if they ever did. Worse, politics are often destructive. 

That’s not to say good governance is not important to the welfare of our nation. It is. But politics are “the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.” 

Politics aren’t important__ imperative, central__ today because of the level of anger and rancor associated with the “debate and conflict” among the opposing parties and even within the party.  Politics has become a noise that drowns out reason and reasonableness. The Apostle Paul tells us to have nothing to with "foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels." 2 Timothy 2:23. Politics fits that really well.

Politics today have become less issue driven and more personality driven. Today’s Presidential politics provide empty rhetoric like “Hope and Change” and “Making America Great Again”. And, as such, our politics have been rendered unimportant…and always have been in the cosmic scheme of things. (Psalm 2:1).

As Groucho Marx quipped, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” To think that more politics is the answer to anything is akin to the definition of insanity – doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. 

To quote my least favorite candidate, “what difference does it make!?” 

What we do need are real world solutions to a myriad of societal issues and creative thinking about new social advances for the common good. What we do need is more coalition building and bipartisan collaboration. 

What we don’t need is more empty rhetoric about returning our nation to the “glory days.” That just isn’t going to happen. History moves forward. What we don’t need is irresponsible rhetoric about shutting our borders to all Muslims or “carpet-bombing” cities.

But, as Christians, there are some things we definitely do need and that are worth battling for: 

We do need repentance by Christians turning from the ways of nationalism and consumerism back to the ways of God – service and sacrifice.

We do need Christian witness of love and grace extending from sea to shining sea to all peoples in our land. 

We do need to be praying for our neighbors, building community, and serving “one another” for the good of our nation. 

We do need to be people of Good News to all people regardless of the various ways we categorize ourselves as One Nation Under God. 

We do need Christians fervently interceding for revival in churches across the continent.

We do need to have a global mission vision because we serve a global God. 

Then our battles are not fought in the political arena but in the prayer room. Then our battles are not fought against other people but against those forces that seek to divide and destroy (Ephesians 6:12).

Thankfully, I see God moving in 2016 with several streams of prayer developing. I was blessed this week to be at a meeting to Revive Dallas. The year ahead could be glorious as we focus on the important things.

If we fight that battle in 2016 we’ll be a much better place come 2017, for Living Sent Today.