Tag Archives: Jesus

Humble Obedience

Jesus wants us to obey to glorify Him - not ourselves

I sat in the pew, the Ugandan heat swelling inside as I listened to the sermon at New City on Sunday.  The sermon was on Matthew 23:1-12.  As I listened and read the text, some thoughts came to me about the passage.

In the text, Jesus shares His thoughts on some common practices by the religious leaders – the scribes and Pharisees.  He points out the poor actions of those many considered to be the holiest.  What does Jesus criticize and what does He want instead?

Jesus is against hypocrisy

He says the scribes and Pharisees taught good practices but “they preach, but do not practice” (v3).   Even if they teach good things, they are not doing them.  They are not obeying God.  They are disobeying.

Jesus wants obedience

Interestingly, Jesus does not dismiss the things they were teaching.  Rather, He wants everyone, including the religious leaders, to “do and observe whatever they tell you” (v3).  Just because the scribes and Pharisees don’t do what they preach does not mean they don’t preach the right things.

Jesus is against self-exaltation

He criticizes the religious leaders for doing things only in public.  The scribes and Pharisees want the recognition of being very religious.  However, they do it to exalt themselves and not to glorify God.  The religious leaders put on a show when in public so they might receive titles, honors, and recognition.  They seek value in man’s opinion and not from God.

Jesus wants humble obedience.

Jesus wants humble obedience.

We too seek to put on a show, seek the praise of others, and find value in how others view us.  We find value in how people view our job, money, car, house, family, church, or whatever.  It is hard work to show our best self.  This is true for many on Facebook, Instagram, and the like.  Facebook has its purpose, but don’t let the number of likes define you. If God says we are His, we are loved, and we are forgiven, then the opinion or likes of others do not matter.  Let us seek His opinion and not others’.

Jesus wants humble obedience

He instructs his hearers to obey for the right reasons.  They should reject the titles and honors the religious leaders seek.  Jesus wants authenticity.  If we are humble, and we value God’s opinion, then we can be free to admit when we fail, when we struggle, or when we doubt.  We run to Him because we are already weak.  Our strength comes when we trust Him (2 Corinthians 12:8-9).  We boast in Christ, not in our accomplishments or ourselves.  That is why Jesus says that the humble will be exalted by God and the one who exalts himself will be humbled.   God wants us to know our need of Him at all times.  He will give us the strength and grace to carry on in obedience.

Jesus calls us to humble, authentic living and obedience.  He calls us to recognize we need Him at all times.  It is tempting exalt ourselves and rely on the opinions of others.  But Jesus wants us to obey, not for the praise of others but because our Father in heaven already loves us where we are.

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Life in the Pit

****Spoiler alert****

Joseph organizes a nation and saves the world from famine through a clever food program.

****Spoiler alert over*****

Joseph saves the world from famine and reunites with his brothers.

How many of you would want to join Joseph in that operation?  I know it sounds very worthwhile. If you only knew the ending you might just sign up for the assignment.

Save the world?  Sign me up.  I am totally in . . . the pit that is.

But if you knew how Joseph got to that place would you sign up to join him?  He was hated by his brothers, thrown into a pit, sold into slavery after they decided not to kill him, taken to a foreign land to serve as a slave, falsely accused of rape, thrown into prison, and betrayed and left there 2 years longer than necessary.

Count me out.  No wait, I am supposed to say, “Whatever your will, Lord.”  Honestly, it doesn’t sound fun.  Thankfully, I have not been called to this (“Lord, please don’t call me to this.”).  But there are a few things (or it could read – But there are at least 3 things…) we can learn from Joseph’s story that will help us whatever God has called us to do.

  1. God’s purposes are accomplished through difficulty

To say Joseph had it hard is an understatement.  Any one of the things that happened to him would be enough by itself.  Take them all together and whoa…that is a lot.

God had a purpose in all of it.  Genesis makes clear that God had a purpose for Joseph.  Genesis 45:4-8 says God sent Joseph into Egypt.  Genesis 50:20 says that God meant for all of this to happen to Joseph.  Why?  Because he wanted to save many people.  He means to bring blessing to the nations as He promised Abraham.

That God intends to save through turmoil is a picture of Genesis 3:15.  This verse states that one would come to rescue mankind from the work of the serpent at great cost to himself.   Now we can see the parallels to Christ.  He came and was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).  God had a plan to save many through the suffering of Christ.  The blessing of the nations promised to Abraham has come to fulfillment.  However, the salvation won by Christ does not come without the suffering.

God can use an unwanted foreign slave to bring about His purposes.

Wonderful.  Jesus suffered so I don’t have to.  Right?  Well yes and no.  Certainly the ultimate suffering we avoid because of Christ.  But today, before He returns, we still experience suffering.  Does God have a plan?  Most certainly.

Romans 8:28 tells us “that for those who love God all things work together for good.”  God is in the business of taking everything that happens to us, including our own suffering, and working it for good.  We must define this good because many, especially in Africa, twist what this good means.  They teach that God is out to make us healthy and wealthy this very day.

The good God has for us is defined by the next verse.  It is that we might be “conformed to the image of his Son.”  God wants to make us more like Christ every day and works all things to that end.  He wants to build our character (1 Peter 2:21), our hope (2 Thessalonians 2:16), our joy (Hebrews 12:2), our peace (John 14:27), and our love (John 13:34), among many other things.

We should pray that our suffering ends.  But that is not our only prayer.  We should pray for God to work his purposes in our lives through any suffering we endure.

Going through great difficulty to accomplish saving the world shows us that. . .

  1. God is sovereign in salvation

If you want to win a championship, you pick the best players.  Much money is spent analyzing NFL prospects for the draft so they can pick the best players.  The school playground is example enough to know the best players are picked first.

God doesn’t operate by normal playground rules.

You don’t pick the worst players to win championships.  That is why I am not in the NFL.  Who would pick an unwanted brother serving as a slave in a foreign land?  Not me.  But God picks such an unlikely person to bring about His salvation.

But why does God pick the unlikely Joseph?  It is to show He is sovereign in salvation.  God is in control and will bring it about.  It depends not on any person (Romans 9:16).  It does not depend on good works.  It is 100% from God.

God chose to use Joseph to show His power.  He wants to show that He alone can bring about salvation.  The salvation of many people through the food program of Joseph points us to how Christ brought salvation.  People thought Jesus wasn’t the man for the job (John 1:46).  People thought dying wasn’t the way forward (Mark 8:31-33).  But God brought salvation and demonstrated His power through the resurrection (Romans 1:4-5).

This brings us great hope because our salvation does not depend on us.  It depends on God.  We are to believe in Christ.  We are not to earn salvation in any way.  We simply trust in God who brought about salvation.

What God wants from us is. . .

  1. We should be faithful even in hard circumstances

The one thing Joseph did was to be faithful.  He had the opportunity to have an affair.  Potiphar’s wife pursued him to do just this.  Yet he refused.  He fled when she tried to force the issue.

The next part blows my mind.  Joseph is rewarded for his faithfulness by being thrown in prison.  Then he uses his God-given gift to interpret dreams.  His reward?  To be left in prison for two more years.

Yet the whole time he was faithful.  He was faithful to Potiphar’s dealings.  He brought great increase to Potiphar.  He was faithful to the prison guard as he was given responsibilities in the prison.

We know that God was faithful to Joseph.  He was keeping the covenant He made with Joseph’s great-grandfather, grandfather, and father.  God promised to be with Abraham (Genesis 21:22), Isaac (Genesis 26:3), and Jacob (Genesis 28:15).  Genesis 39:2 makes this plain by saying God was with Joseph.

Can God be with Joseph (or us) in hard circumstances?  Is God there?  He is and He is accomplishing His purposes. We tend to think God is absent in the hard circumstances.  But He is there keeping His promises.  Hard circumstances are not a sign that God is not with us.

Being in the pit, like Joseph, is not a sign that God doesn’t care for you.  It is a sign that God has something better for you.  As seen above, that something is Christ-likeness.

Christ has promised to be with us.  The Great Commission ends with a great promise.  That promise is that Jesus will be with us always, even to the end of the age.  Ah, what comfort to us and the apostles who first heard it.  They certainly would face many hard circumstances.  Their part was to remain faithful to Christ, which they did.

There are many times life seems hard, unfair, or difficult.  Our job is to believe God and remain faithful.  We may be tempted to think it doesn’t matter, that this situation is too hard.  But our faithfulness does matter.  Our faithfulness is better than much gold (Psalm 119:72).

There are no little circumstances, only little faithfulness.  We must realize, that we are responsible for responding to God with faithfulness, even in hard circumstances.  We know it is worth remaining faithful for we have a heavenly reward (Romans 8:18).

Conclusion

A pastor I know likes to say that you are either going into a hard circumstance, in one, or coming out of one.  Life is hard.  But God is good and has good things for us, our growth in Christ.  He often uses hard circumstances to bring them about.  He is sovereign and faithful through it all asking us to trust Him.  Let us respond with faithfulness even though it may seem hard.

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The Nativity Message

The December night was chilly and a crowd had gathered with anticipation. We had sheep and a donkey and I think a few other animals at a live nativity we performed at our church when I was in high school. In it was a particularly memorable moment, not when the angels spoke to the shepherds nor when the wise men arrived nor baby Jesus’ entrance. No the most memorable moment was when a sheep ran off with a youth holding tightly to the rope. The crowd laughed and had a bit of concern and we youth were aghast and trying to figure out how the show would go on. I can’t even remember which part I played but I do remember the sheep dragging a friend for a few yards.

Among the many Christmas traditions and decorations, the nativity stands as one of my favorites. I love how they remind us of Jesus, God incarnate, as a baby and how they show the people who came to worship Jesus. This is not just in America, in my travels I have found it fascinating to see how each country has different materials and methods of constructing nativities. Every area of the world makes them in their own way. Each one displaying the meaning of Christmas – that Immanuel – God with us – has come to save the world (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23).

When you see a nativity scene this Christmas, you can thank St. Francis of Assisi. Well, of course we should thank God for sending Jesus. But, St. Francis made the first nativity or crèche in 1223 AD. That first nativity featured live animals and people. It quickly gained popularity and spread throughout the Roman Catholic world. They featured all the characters of the Christmas story found in the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew – Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the wise men, shepherds, angels, a star, and even animals.

Brooke and I at the traditional site of Jesus' birth

Brooke and I at the traditional site of Jesus’ birth


But who should we include in the nativity? This has been a question I have heard more and more and perhaps you have even heard it.

Should the wise men be put into the nativity with the shepherds? Growing up, of course they all went together. More recently I have learned that many think the wise men came about two years after the shepherds. They were both there but not at the same time. Are our nativities wrong? Should we correct them? I have heard it suggested – both tongue in cheek and more seriously – the wise men should be on a different shelf. How should we think about all this?

Why do people question if the wise men should be there with the shepherds? Well this is because of the story of the wise men as found in the Gospel of Matthew. They show up and ask the king of the land, Herod, where the one born king of the Jews, Jesus, was to be found. Herod wasn’t too keen on having another king so he set out to kill Jesus. Herod had all children two years old and under heinously murdered.

This time frame suggests to some that Jesus would have been about 2 years old when the wise men came calling. But nothing in the text makes this conclusion necessary. Herod could have just been overly cautious. If Herod is anything like me then he is not too keen at identifying the ages of younger children.

How long did Joseph and Mary stay in Bethlehem, a city they were visiting for a census? They didn’t have a return bus ticket for a specific return date. But would staying 2 years in a place that wasn’t their home be probable? Two years seems like a long time.

Regardless of when the wise men were there, the shepherds were there for opening night of Christ’s life on earth. God, as a proud Father, announced the birth of His Son to the shepherds. They were there for one night only, at least as given by the text. So the likelihood of the shepherds and the wise men being there on the same night doesn’t seem so great.

But does this mean we should separate them in our nativities?

Here is a nativity at my mom's house

Here is a nativity at my mom’s house


The nativity tells this one story so very beautifully. Though we have four Gospels we have to see them telling the one story of Jesus but with different perspectives or emphases. I think when St. Francis made the first crèche he had the gospel story in mind not just the historicity of one moment. Think of a nativity as a portrait and not a snapshot. It portrays so well the Christmas message of God with us. The nativity demonstrates so well the ‘us’ in God with us.

If you want a Matthew nativity then you should include only the wise men and the shepherds should be on a different shelf and the baby would be a little bigger. If it is a Luke nativity that you desire then perhaps the wise men should be on a different shelf. But if you want a Gospel nativity then they should be together.

But what does the nativity communicate to us? Taking the Matthew and Luke accounts together is good and tells a story about Christ as God and who He came to save. In each account we have two sets of very different people coming to see the baby Jesus (see Chart).

The wise men of Matthew were not Jewish people but Gentiles. Gentiles were kept out of the temple and generally avoided when possible by Jews. The wise men were also rich bringing expensive gifts to Jesus. They traveled from far away to visit Jesus’ homeland. Their title in the text as well as their ability to gain an audience with King Herod suggests they held respected positions. The text of Matthew also tells us that they knew of some prophesy about Christ and knew that the star they saw meant that the king of the Jews had been born.

The shepherds of Luke are quite different from the wise men. They were Jewish and thus the very people to whom Christ had been promised. They were poorer than the wise men and most likely poor themselves as they had the night watch on some sheep. They lived in Jesus’ homeland and were very near to where He was born. Their occupation was not the most respected in that time. The text tells us that they were surprised by the birth announcement from the angels.

What they have in common is part of the greatest news of all time. They both respond in faith and with worship. Imagine if they lacked faith and did not visit the baby Jesus even though told about him in their differing ways. The wise men knelt down and worshiped the infant Jesus. The shepherds, like the angels who told them, glorified and praised God for what they had seen. Praising and glorifying are a form of worship so their experience caused them to worship God. Both groups respond if faith and worship. Experiencing Jesus should result in worship. This is the desired outcome of the nativity and Jesus’ birth.

The 'Us' of the Nativity

WISE MENSHEPHERDS
GentileJew
RichPoor
FarNear
RespectedLowly
AnticipatedSurprised
RESULTRESULT
FaithFaith
WorshipWorship

Today many fear they are or may be excluded from Christ. But all are welcome to respond in faith and worship. The wise men and shepherds teach this. Each group has something that suggests they are not expected to be the ones to come and worship. To be sure the Jew/Gentile division is the main one. For the Jews, the Gentiles (or those who were not Jewish) were not part of God’s people and the anticipated Messiah was largely thought to be exclusively for the Jews. But even within the Jewish community, one might expect religious leaders or priests or those of high esteem to be told first by God. The nativity blows these expectations out of the water (Isaiah 9:2, Psalm 86:9, Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-19).

The wise men are Gentiles and far off. Who would guess they would come and worship. But they are rich and respected which many take, especially in that day, as signs of having God’s blessing. Also they were looking for Jesus. So these may be inferred as characteristics we look for in worshippers.

The shepherds on the other hand are Jewish and live in Israel. Of course they are welcome by this criteria. But also they were poor and of a lower occupation and were not even looking for Jesus. By these we might not expect them to be invited to the party.

But the good news is, and we see it so clearly in the nativity, all manner of humanity has been called to worship God through Jesus Christ. It does not matter your background, occupation, status, financial assets, or whether you are even looking for God. His call does not extend only to Jews or the rich or any other category. Jesus came to save people from all stripes – whether you are being drug by a sheep or have it all together. All people are welcome to respond to in faith and worship Jesus.

This Christmas season, when you see a nativity let it remind you to worship Jesus. It is all about Him. Let it remind you that all are welcome to respond in faith and worship Jesus. Who are the people in your life who need to hear the good news of Jesus? Who needs to hear that they too are welcome? Like God, the proud father, told of the birth of His Son to the shepherds, let us too tell of the birth of Jesus and call ourselves and others to worship Him.

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Running to Hope

Have you ever been in stop and go traffic without another car on the road? I now have. We were driving in the Kiryandongo refugee camp and Pastor James Bab would tell me to stop.

A small house in the  refugee camp

A small house in the refugee camp

He saw someone walking and he wanted to greet them. So a short drive was made longer, but also much more pleasant.

Three guys from our Mission to the World (MTW) team, Ben Church, Bert Williams, and I, went to visit the South Sudanese refugee camp in Uganda and the work Pastor James is doing there. We know Pastor James because he has studied at Westminster Theological College where MTW helps teach.

James Bab and the visiting contingent give a thumbs up on a wonderful visit

James Bab and the visiting contingent give a thumbs up on a wonderful visit

James Bab is a Presbyterian pastor who runs a school that trains pastors in South Sudan. I met him last December when He came to Uganda to attend the Westminster graduation of some fellow South Sudanese brothers. This encounter led to a meeting and an accepting of an invitation to preach at the church he planted in Kampala.

Fleeing From Fighting
Just before he was to return to South Sudan and his family, fighting broke out in South Sudan on December 15th. There were reports of a coup attempt against the president (some dispute this claim). Regardless of the precipitation of the fighting, it is clear that battle lines are now drawn along ethnic lines.

According to the stories told to us one ethnic group, the Dinkas (the tribe of the president of South Sudan), are seeking to kill another ethnic group, the Nuer. The people in Kiryandongo are mostly Nuer. They fear for their friends and family still in South Sudan and are trying to make the best of their new home.

Every day, more people come into the camp with more stories of the suffering and persecution of the Nuer. One of the most recent arrivals, Helen, got to share her story with us.

Helen is Nuer and lived in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. As soon as the fighting broke out her home became its own refugee center. She had 15+ people in the house hiding. But soon even her home wasn’t safe. She had to flee and hide in another house. When the murderous soldiers came, they wanted to demolish that house with a tank like they had done several others. They were trying to eliminate the assets of Nuer as well as eliminate any hiding places. Fortunately, someone told them it was the house of another soldier’s in-laws. So they let it stand.

Eventually she was able to flee to the compound guarded by the UN in Juba. There are UN soldiers who protect those inside. Helen was relatively safe in the compound but many are suffering inside the compound. However, there is little food, water, shelter, medicine, and other necessities available. Some murderous soldiers on the outside of the camp climb a tower and shoot into the compound and sometimes hit people.

****Warning – some of the things in the next paragraph are terrible, graphic, and not for the faint of heart

Helen’s story is tragic. But she relayed the happenings of others to us as well. Some Nuer found by the murderous soldiers were made to do unimaginable things and had unimaginable things done to them. The soldiers raped many women and even gang raped some into a coma. In a sick and twisted perversion, some sons were forced to ‘know’ their mothers. Some women were made to eat the raw flesh of some who were already dead.

****Graphic content over

These stories still make me pause and regroup. They are unsettling. But it makes their requests of us all the more amazing. More on these requests below.

These events certainly show the depravity of mankind and depths that sin will take us. Never before had I heard stories like this so fresh and real. Never before have I realized just how much we need a Savior. We need a Savior who not only hates sin but provides salvation from it. We need Jesus.

In February, I went to Rwanda and took the opportunity to visit the Genocide Memorial there. The stories between the two events are strikingly similar. Just a few days ago people were commemorating the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. I am afraid that in 20 years the same will be done for South Sudan if actions are not taken soon.

Inside the Camp
After stopping at the entrance to the camp to greet the camp director, we proceeded into the camp. There is one main road that is dirt. There are a few other roads that branch from it including smaller footpaths.

Food collection day in the camp.

Food collection day in the camp.

In mid-December 2013 there were 150 or so refugees in the camp. Less than 4 months later there are over 20,000. At first glance you might not realize this is a place that houses 20,000+ refugees. I was expecting something more densely populated. But granted, I have never been to one before. However, the drive down the road is pleasant with wonderful vistas of the mountains in the distance and greenery all around. There are huts and houses on occasion. They are rarely close to others. You can tell for sure if a house belong to a refugee because they will have tarp roofs or walls.

When refugees arrive at the camp they have to register. Then they are assigned a plot of land, given 5 poles and a tarp and bused to their new place of residence. The poles and tarp help build homes. Some refugees have opted to build mud brick homes as time and resources allow. They can also get a concrete slab and 4 logs given to them so a pit latrine can be constructed. Also there are days when food is delivered and they can go collect rice, beans, and various other food supplies.

Apart from tarp roofs and walls occasionally, the setting is very much like an African village. The scenery is quite pleasant. But the people are still in turmoil. They are grieving their family and country and they are trying to make a life in the camp.

Meeting with the Survivors

Ben and Bert listen to James and company talk about the plans for the church and its building.

Ben and Bert listen to James and company talk about the plans for the church and its building.

Pastor James first took us to see a building with only wood poles framing in place. They are working on constructing a church building. Currently they share meeting space with the local Catholic church.

We were then whisked over to that shared meeting space to have a gathering. The choir was present with their robes neatly adorned. They welcomed with a song in Nuer and followed that up with another. I didn’t understand a word but I certainly enjoyed it.

James introduced us to the people and shared a few words. Then the people gathered shared their stories with us. Helen was the first to go. The others verified her stories and told their own.

At the end I Have Decided was sung in Nuer and I sang in English. We then joined hands, Americans and Nuer, in prayer to our Heavenly Father. It was a sweet time of fellowship with a dark and heavy subject. Yet everyone there was worshipping God and giving Him glory.

The choir welcomes us with a song

The choir welcomes us with a song

It really is a testimony to me that they would have seen and experienced firsthand and still want to praise God. They have a real joy and peace that so many are longing for in this world. They have a lot to teach us, especially Westerners, on how to rejoice in suffering.

The Requests
After the stories were shared two requests were made. Several people stood to reiterate the requests and to share more about them. What they wanted was money to help get more people out of Juba and into Uganda. Specifically they want to get the widows, orphans, and sick out so they can come to the camp to receive some of the things not found in the UN compound there in Juba.

Funding to finish construction on the church building was the second request. They want to finish construction on a space for the Presbyterians to have a place to worship and offer space to the community. The current meeting space is also used by the Catholics and they use the space the majority of the time. Even the Catholics there were wanted this. It seemed to make sense.

Putting these two requests together remind me of God’s command in the book of Exodus. There, the Pharaoh is told by the Lord to let His people go so that they may go worship Him. That is what these dear brothers and sisters in Christ want. They want their people to be freed from the violence in Juba to come and worship God in Uganda. These refugees are being faithful in the midst of suffering. Praise God for their message and their testimony to God’s mercy and goodness. They are running to hope. The only hope found in Jesus Christ.

Thumbs up to praising the Lord!

Thumbs up to praising the Lord!

A family's compound in the camp.

A family’s compound in the camp.

We give a thumbs to up an encouraging meeting

We give a thumbs to up an encouraging meeting

Note the tarp covering of the house

Note the tarp covering of the house

The space where we met with the refugees.

The space where we met with the refugees.

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Teaching Theology

Oh How I love Thee

This past week, I had the opportunity to teach a class at Westminster Theological College. Our team leader Bruce Sinclair teaches there and paved the way for this wonderful opportunity. I taught 13 students a course on New Testament (NT) Survey. We covered topics such as the NT canon, the story of the Bible, and how the NT is the realizing of God’s promises made in the Old Testament.

I do love to teach and have the hand motions to prove it.

I do love to teach and have the hand motions to prove it.

The students are from different parts of Uganda and a few were from Kenya and South Sudan. They are involved in some ministry in their home areas. They have each come to study at Westminster in order to further their understanding of God’s Word. One student told me about a prison ministry he helps organize near his home. Each one is on the front lines for our Lord Jesus Christ. They bring a variety of experiences and backgrounds to the class.

I gave quizzes, written assignments, and a final exam. To be on the other end of the exams was very strange. Part of me would rather take the exam and do the homework. But honestly, I really tried to let those assignments serve as learning tools.

My mother was a student for one day and enjoys the wonderful view from the college.

My mother was a student for one day and enjoys the wonderful view from the college.

It is said that Christianity in Africa is a mile wide and an inch deep. I am finding this saying to have some truth to it. One of the biggest challenges I have seen in Uganda has been the lack of quality biblical training for pastors. Westminster serves the needs of Christ’s church in Africa very well and I get to play a small part in that.

In the movie Chariots of Fire, the main character is a runner and says that he feels the pleasure of God when he runs. One day, I came home and told Brooke that describes how I felt when I taught. Teaching is such a privilege and I praise God I get the opportunity.

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How to Love a Murderer

Just how powerful is the gospel of Jesus Christ? I know a textbook answer but I must admit I doubt it frequently in the real world. Several weeks ago I was floored by its work in one woman’s life.

It all started from here.

It all started from here.

Luwero is a small town in Uganda about 64 km outside of Kampala (that’s about 40 miles for people like me). It is the home of Luwero Presbyterian Church where we spent some time. My teammate Ben Church and I were invited to go out into the community with some of their members to do some evangelizing.

The very first day Ben and I arrived late to meet the others. But it would turn out to be perfect timing for the Lord to work. We met Shadrach and Gladys there and prayed before setting out. We first came to an Anglican woman’s home and spoke with her and found out she already believed in Jesus. Praise the Lord.

Next we went not 100 yards behind her house where four Ugandan men were doing some construction. They were working on a small brick building with a roof but no doors or windows and a dirt floor. Among the four men was a guy wearing a kofia, a brimless hat worn especially by Muslims here. He was leaning up against a wall overseeing the other three men. One of the other men was inside plastering a wall and the other two were outside mixing the cement with shovels and bringing it into the plasterer.

We went up to them and began talking with them. Ugandans are especially friendly and love visitors. If you show up at dinner time then you will be given a seat at the table and given first dibs on the food already prepared. Also it can take hours to go a short walk because it is custom to greet and talk with those you know and see on your way. Americans can be more task oriented but Ugandans love to visit.

When we arrived, Shadrach did most of the introduction. He then had Ben talk to them about the good news of Jesus. He gave a timely illustration about how God is building the world and using various pieces to do it. The pieces have rebelled and need help and forgiveness. Jesus is the only one who can offer this. Then I followed that up with something similar using his building illustration.

After some time the plaster mixers moved inside to further help the other guy and it was just the kofia wearer outside. It turns out he is a Muslim and his name is Medi. It wasn’t long until Gladys and Shadrach were speaking to him in Luganda even though he spoke English. I think it was because it was easier for them. Ben and I stood there silently praying because we had no idea what they were saying.

Ben and I went out evangelizing and saw God work powerfully.

Ben and I went out evangelizing and saw God work powerfully.

Ben and I had to leave so we had to interrupt them. As we were concluding, Medi said through interpretation that we had spoken a “good word” to him about Jesus. He wanted to know more and we gladly discussed talking with him again. The other three men also wanted to hear more and Shadrach and Gladys also discussed another meeting with them.

It wasn’t until we got back to the car that Ben and I realized just how powerful the gospel had been in that encounter. It turns out Gladys knows Medi. You see, Medi is the man who murdered her son 7 years ago. Medi is the one responsible for taking her beloved son from her. My jaw hit the floor when I heard this. I had no idea they knew each other yet alone the current situation of the relationship from our time talking with him.

Her son was 26 years old and fell sick for two hours and died. Medi had bewitched her son. Here in Uganda, when something unexpected like this happens it is often blamed on the spirits or bewitching. I asked another Ugandan about the situation and he said it was definitely a bewitching.

If you are a Westerner reading this then you probably have a very skeptical view of this interpretation of events. If you are an African reading this then you probably believe it was a bewitching. Regardless of the position you hold, what you cannot deny is that Gladys believes Medi is responsible for the death of her son. This is the important fact here. She believes he murdered her son. And Medi apparently feels he did too.

After her son died, that night Medi fled his home. Since then whenever he is about to walk past Gladys on the road, he runs away to avoid her. His wife and daughter have both come to Gladys to express remorse for him bewitching and killing her son. It seems both parties believe that Medi killed Galdys’ son.

I was eager to find out more and hear what Gladys said to Medi. There are many options for how this could go. Did she curse him or utter vicious words or tell her how much she hates him? No. What she said demonstrates the gospel so very well.

She told him, “I forgive you.”

Gladys knows gospel forgiveness

Gladys knows gospel forgiveness


Those are three little words that take gospel power to say to the man who killed your son. I shudder to think what I would say in that situation. No wonder Medi said we had good words. The grace Gladys showed him had power.

That is the gospel power I need in my life. That is the power I need to love my family yet alone my enemies. I need that gospel power every day. It is on offer through the grace of Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection are the means to that power.

Gladys demonstrates well one of my favorite verses Romans 5:8, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While Medi is the murderer of her son, she chose to forgive. She can only do that because the truth of Romans 5:8 has found its home in her.

Pray for Medi. I am sad to say that we did not get to meet again with him. I am not sure if Shadrach or Gladys were able to meet with him. But I pray he would believe in Jesus and know His forgiveness and power. Also pray you and I would know the power of the gospel in our lives every day.

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A Challenge to Love the Poor and the Orphan

Being challenged can be, well, challenging.  It can be a challenge that helps sharpen where you stand or it can be a challenge that is unfruitful.  The Urban Halo by Craig Greenfield provides the former kind of challenge.

Read this book and thank me later

Read this book and thank me later

This book seeks to challenge Christian believers in two areas.  The first is to live incarnational lives among the urban poor.  The second is to reevaluate how we do orphan care.  These challenges come at a very opportune time for me, as I am about to move to Kampala, the capital and largest city in Uganda.  I am moving there after spending time at a children’s center studying for 5 months.  So I am the perfect audience for this work.

Greenfield was a well to do New Zealander who gave up his plush job to live in a slum in Cambodia with his wife, Nay.  The book tells the story of this journey giving the rationale for his radical move.  It also depicts how he came to work with orphans.

The stories told make one lift his eyes to heaven and praise God for His power and His love.  The author’s heart to serve Christ was gripping.  The story of his wife’s childhood escape from the murderous communist regime in Cambodia was especially moving.  There is no doubt the author has striven to serve Christ with his whole life.

Greenfield also writes with an authenticity that identifies with the reader.  For example, when he had just moved to a slum in Phnom Penh, he was frustrated with some aspects of life there, and so he wanted to punch anyone who annoyed him.  This honesty can only come when you realize Christ is sufficient for you and you do not need to seem perfect to others.  Christ’s grace is sufficient.  This dependency on Christ’s grace is refreshing and encouraging.

The author’s quest began when the options he saw for ministering to the poor in Cambodia seemed insufficient.  The options he saw other missionaries attempting were:

  1. Ignore the poverty and “preach the gospel of salvation from eternal damnation”
  2. Combine preaching with ministering to physical needs and creating “rice Christians”[1]
  3. “Carry out social work. . .without using any words about Jesus”

He wanted a “more integrated spirituality where proclamation and demonstration went hand in hand” (p 12).

These observations led Greenfield and his wife to move into the slum of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.  He had discovered a ministry, Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, which encouraged missionaries to live among the poor.  So he joined their work in Cambodia.  This decision was also fueled by his view of Jesus’ incarnational ministry.  If “Jesus left his privileged position to join us in our human condition, suffering alongside us,” then this would be the model for ministry for believers (p 37).  I discuss the validity of his conclusions below.

While serving with Servants he became familiar with its ministry to people with AIDS.  He began to realize that the children of those with AIDS would soon be orphans.  So he thought he and Nay would start an orphanage.  However, as he researched the issue, he found that having an institutional orphanage was not the best model for caring for orphans.  His research included numerous studies of the various models for caring for orphans including community based orphan care.  Greenfield’s conclusion is that community based orphan care is the best for the child.  More on this model below.

So this book offers two challenges.  The first is helpful but ultimately falls short.  The second is a wake up call to all those working with orphans.

DOES LIVING INCARNATIONALLY MEAN LIVING IN A SLUM?

This is the premise of the author’s first challenge.  Certainly Jesus’ ministry was by definition incarnational.  Jesus did leave a position of privilege and came to live in a low estate.  However, does this reality merely describe Jesus’ ministry[2] or does it prescribe[3] how believers are also to minister.

Would you live here?  The author did.

Would you live here? The author did.

Greenfield asks this very question.  He answers that, in fact, it does prescribe our ministry methods (p 37-38).  He believes his living in a slum was “modeling a kingdom way of life that values the poor and underprivileged” and his prayer was others to follow him live like he did (p 53).  The author admits to having to repent for feeling superior to other missionaries not living in a slum (p 42).  If he is just presenting one model for believers then that is one thing.  However, he wants others to follow his example which he bases on Jesus’ example.  So this book serves as his challenge to most if not all believers.

But just what does incarnational mean?  Does it mean that you must find a poor[4] area and live there like those there live?  I think it does not for 3 reasons:

    1.      The criteria are arbitrary
It is one thing to say you should live among the poor.  I agree with the author that to ignore them would be sinful.  But how does one decide who are the poor and who are the not poor.  Where is the line drawn and who draws it there?  For example, why does the author not live as the homeless do?  They are surely poorer Cambodians than those that lived in shacks near him in Cambodia.  If Jesus’ ministry is a literal prescription then believers should also live without homes just as Jesus did (Matthew 8:20).

2.      The Bible’s view is for the rich and poor to live and serve together, not for all to become poor
Had it not been for rich and poor divides we would not have one of the two passages about the Lord’s Supper outside of the Gospels.  In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, Paul chastises the richer Corinthians for hoarding and not sharing their food with the poorer brethren.  He does not chastise them because they are not living like their poorer brothers and sisters.  In 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Paul charges the rich of the world to be generous and ready to share.  He does not command them to live among the poor.

3.      It is a non sequitur to say that you must be like those to whom you minister
One of Greenfield’s arguments is that you must be like the poor in order understand and effectively minister to them.  His wife had a ministry to prostitutes in Cambodia.  Must she become a prostitute in order to understand and minister to them?  Of course not.  What it takes to minister is a willingness to understand where they are coming from and how the gospel impacts their life.  It would be helpful to listen to them, to be near them, to read about that lifestyle, and many other things.  But being exactly like them is not necessary.  Besides, he had money, a guest house to escape to rest, and many other accommodations that his neighbors would know nothing about having.

We Should Live Incarnationally!
I say all of this because I agree with the author that we should live more incarnational lives. I agree that the current ministries to the poor largely seem insufficient.  Too many people ignore the poor or just throw them a handout.  Instead, believers should engage the poor and live with them and alongside them.  They should bring the good news of Jesus Christ in a relational and holistic way.  But this does not mean Christians should necessarily become poor.

Incarnational living is being able to identify with others so as to bring the gospel to them in a way they will understand.  This is why Paul can say that he became as one under the law but was not under the law himself (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).  So we see Paul able to identify with some but did not actually become like them.

Rightfully, Greenfield laments that the problem is that the church is “preferring instead to keep the poor at arm’s length” (p 169).  This actually supports my view of incarnation.  Instead of keeping them at arm’s lengths we should invite them and welcome them with open arms.

With this in mind I concur with Greenfield that more should be done in ministry to the poor.  I agree with him that ministries of “word and deed are inseparable” (p 169).  I agree that there should be more interaction between the poor and the rich.  Churches should be intentional to invite the poor into their midst.  People should not consciously or unconsciously avoid the poor or distance themselves from them.  But this does not necessitate living as a poor person in a poor area.  To be sure it is more than drive by mercy ministries.  However, the biblical call is not to act poor but to be “generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:18).

ARE WE HURTING OR HELPING ORPHANS?

The author’s second challenge is important for the care of orphans in the coming years.  The fact that the Bible commands the care of orphans is not in doubt (James 1:27).  But how does one go about doing this?  He answers this question well.

Greenfield goes on a mission to find out the best way to love orphans.  He scatters the research and findings throughout the second half of the book.  His conclusion, after sifting through copious amounts of research, is that no matter how you slice it, community based orphan care is better for children than institutional based orphan care.

This is a very helpful discussion for a novice like me.  I just assumed you put all the kids in a big building and call it an orphanage.  However, it is not quite that simple.  For sure, some orphan care works like that.    But the other end of the spectrum is to find a home for the orphan to become a member.  Usually this home is that of the nearest relative but could be someone else from the community.  There is a continuum of models between these two options.

Greenfield’s team in Cambodia oversees this finding of relatives and homes for the kids to live.  They also provide encouragement, training, and a little financial support to the adoptive families.  This model has several positive features:

  1. The child gets to know his family
  2. The child gets to know her heritage and culture
  3. The child has a lifetime support network and does not “age out”
  4. The cost is significantly reduced
  5. Studies show kids are better adjusted to life in this model

The research is impressive.  Being ignorant of the different options for orphan care this community based model strikes me as very biblical in that it emphasizes family.  It is also a low investment but high impact way to love orphans.

The author and his family left the high life to serve the poor

The author and his family left the high life to serve the poor.

Since reading this book I have come across two articles (this one and that one) arguing for something similar.  Greenfield takes a more graceful tact than the articles.  He praises God for those loving on orphans for the fact that they are at least doing something to care for those in need.  He even provides some steps for those wanting to move towards the community based approach and away from the institutional approach.

CONCLUSION

While I will not live in a slum when I move to Kampala, I will visit one and get to know poor people.  I will also know how to think about caring for orphans.  This book will help move the discussion forward on how to care for those without parents.  The call to live incarnationally should be heeded by all believers everywhere.  Besides being a good biography of a faithful servant of the King, the book is a must read for anyone working with orphans.  It serves as a good challenge to check our methods and our heart when we serve others.  I praise God for Craig Greenfield and thank him for his service to our Lord!

 


[1] Those that get “saved” in order to continue receiving the free handout
[2] And thus giving principles for believers to follow but leaving the methods open
[3] Giving not only principles but also the methods
[4] Poor is being defined here as those who have few material possessions and might not have all basic necessities met.
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How Sweet the Sound

Amazing Grace

When I was in 7th grade I was asked my favorite song for a class project.  While some were saying “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice I was saying “Amazing Grace.” Now mind you I wasn’t very spiritually inclined. After hearing others’ answers I wanted mine to be “Ice Ice Baby.”

Now that I am more spiritually inclined, “Amazing Grace” is still my favorite hymn and song.  It is simply beautiful.  The music, lyrics, and memories all move me.  I want the song played at my funeral.  But please play the John Newton old school version.  I do not care for free chains or other choruses added into it.  I can handle them but I want the plain jane version.  It was the plain version that was played as my bride walked down the aisle on our wedding day.  Needless to say this song has some significance for me.

Why are we discussing my favorite song?  Today was my first Sunday in Uganda and we spent it at Zana Community Presbyterian Church in Kampala.  Believe it or not, the first song of the worship service today was “Amazing Grace.”  About a verse in and I look at Brooke and she has teared up.  I was moved by this.  It was God’s reminder of His amazing grace. 

Looking back on all that transpired in order for us to get to Uganda shows God’s grace at work.  Raising support – God’s grace; Having our second child – God’s grace; Getting ordained – God’s grace; Having needs met after quitting job – God’s grace; getting to Uganda with all our bags – God’s grace.  His grace has sustained us and enabled us to take this bold step for Him. 

I know God’s grace has gotten me thus far.  Now my flesh wants to take over and do the rest from here.  But this would be disastrous. Perhaps the song itself is a good reminder for me:

“T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far…
and Grace will lead us home.”

I need God’s grace every second of every day.  It is free and available.  It flows like a sprinkler on a desert lawn.  I often reject it and try my own way.  It takes His grace to overcome my rejection.  I am thankful He gives His amazing grace to unamazing people like me.  And I am so glad He took spoke this gentle reminder to me today that the amazing grace that has gotten me here will be the same thing that will carry me on. 

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Can We Just Pick and Choose?: A Response to Clay Travis

Travis PicWhen Chris Broussard, an NBA analyst, said on ESPN that he thought homosexuality was a sin you just knew a firestorm would erupt over his comments.  Broussard said he got his view from the Bible.  This only adds fuel to the fire.

So Clay Travis, a radio host out of Nashville and the proprietor of the website outkickthecoverage.com, took to his website to voice his opinion of the matter.  In the process he takes shots at the Bible, heaven, Pat Robertson, baptism, pastors, churches, Southern Baptists, and God.

In the article Travis asserts that when he was twelve he read the entire Bible.  He also says he grew up going to church.  All of this has left him with questions and concerns.  I can appreciate this.  Most people who criticize the Bible have not read it all the way through.  Also he raises honest questions about God and how these questions left him insecure with God.  While his article touches on various issues, my main aim in answering him is to deal with the interpretive issues he presents when he dismisses the Biblical prohibition of homosexuality outright.

This is especially important because his rationale for dismissing the claims of the Bible is a common one today.  I mainly hear this argument used when discussing homosexuality.  This is presumably because the biblical prohibition against homosexuality is so clear you can’t say that the Bible doesn’t prohibit it.  So another line of reasoning is needed.  The argument goes something like this:  “The Bible says homosexuality is wrong but it also says some crazy thing is wrong.  We do that crazy thing without bother so that must mean homosexuality is ok.”

A Case Study

The “some crazy thing” that is prohibited in the Bible is usually a verse found in the Old Testament.  Let’s use one I have heard often – the prohibition of shellfish.  This prohibition is found in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 14:10.

This law comes just after Israel was rescued from being slaves in Egypt.  God gives them laws to constitute them as a people and to show them how to live now that they are a redeemed people.  The laws were meant to teach Israel about God and who He was.  Two things must be remembered: 1. These laws were for the nation of Israel 2. These laws were for the working out all facets of life, the moral, civil, and religious functions.  Israel was not only a civil entity but also a religious entity.  In America today, we do not have religious laws.  We have only civil laws.  Therefore, many of Israel’s laws seem out of place.  But they were designed for Israel to live out their lives before God and before men in holiness.  God gave them these laws for their good.

So when Jesus instituted the Church He did not also institute a civil entity.  That portion of life was gone.  Also gone were the religious portions of the law, namely concerned with sacrifice and the temple.  All that was left was the moral aspect.  So when Jesus tells Peter to eat foods previously forbidden Peter reacts with surprise.  The message is clear.  This portion of the law has served its purpose to lead to Christ.  It has no more direct force.  The principles of holiness are still there.  But the direct prohibition of eating shellfish has been done away.

Christ did away with the dietary laws in Acts.  The church since then has known that most of the laws in the OT are not directly applicable to the church.  Rather they were for a specific time and place, namely the people of Israel before the time of Christ.  We may find some of these laws intriguing, confusing, or maybe even wrong for application today.  However, they are not racist, sexist, or wrong for Israel in their day as Travis claims.

So what do we do with these Old Testament laws?  We follow them as they are intended to be followed.  The moral commands are in force just as they were for Israel.  However, the other laws serve as case law and to be used to guide us or give principles.  They are not meant to be followed in a literalistic fashion today.

So what of the commands against homosexuality?  They fall in the moral category and are still in force today.  Besides that, the prohibition against homosexuality is repeated in the New Testament.  So it is still wrong to practice homosexuality.  God means this for our good.

Other Claims of Travis

In Travis’ case, the “some crazy thing” is slavery.  He says the Bible was used to say slavery was ok.  However, this is patently false.  1 Timothy 1:9-10 clearly prohibits enslaving other human beings.  While it is true that some used the Bible to make the claim that slavery was ok.  This is utterly regrettable.  In fact Travis mentions the Southern Baptists who repented of this practice.  This does not show that they now disregard this portion of the Bible.  Rather they repent of misinterpreting the Bible.

Travis says, “The Bible says tens of thousands of things that are. . . impossible to follow in today’s modern society” and “Let’s be clear, the Bible says all sorts of crazy things that every Christian has agreed not to follow.” We both come to this conclusion for different reasons.  He thinks we just know better now.  I don’t dismiss the Bible just because I don’t like what it says.  Rather I follow sound hermeneutical logic to come to my conclusion.  Here is another instance of someone using Travis’ unbiblical logic to unfruitful outcomes.  So Travis can say they are impossible to follow today but most of the things he is talking about are not to be followed today as I have described above.

Something that Travis says about his five year old self breaks my heart, “Why did he [God] also need me to constantly acknowledge his superiority over me?”  He sees God’s laws as arbitrary and that God has low self-esteem and needs others to worship Him.  This is tragic because it precludes Travis from seeing how awesome and wonderful God is.  He has the issue backwards.  He thinks God needs us.  In reality we need God.  It is for our benefit that He has spoken through His Word.  It is for our benefit that He has given us laws.  It is for our benefit that He offers Himself for worship.

Travis’ fascination with Ezekiel 23:20 shows that God is concerned with justice and holy living of His people.  Also, his description of the Southern Baptists officially apologizing for slavery shows that Bible is concerned with real people in real life.  They realized they had gotten it wrong and are now doing what they know they should do – repent. This is the beauty of the gospel message found in the Bible.  It offers real people, who do real sinful stuff, forgiveness.  It offers them hope and a new life.  It can do this because of the death and resurrection of Christ.  Those sins were heinous enough for Christ to die so that they could be forgiven.  So when we think ourselves guilty or shamed we should not seek to dismiss the action as being ok.  Rather we should repent and trust Christ for forgiveness.  God has meant this for our good.

Conclusion

This is how Travis ultimately sees the issue:  “Using a single Bible verse to justify an opinion that dehumanizes another individual is.”  This is unfortunate especially because this is how the culture at large thinks.  However, the issue is not that the Bible or Christianity or Broussard dehumanizes homosexuals.  This is evident from Broussard’s own friendship with a homosexual as he described it in the article.  No one says the Bible dehumanizes adulterers or murders when it prohibits these actions.  On the contrary the Bible humanizes every person by saying they were made in the image of God that we should love every person.  Saying you think an action is wrong does not dehumanize the person who might practice that action.  Wherever the church has dehumanized homosexuals or anyone else for that matter, and unfortunately it is guilty in some respects, it should repent.  But the fact remains that this dehumanization is not the result of saying that an action is sinful.  I hope he does not think I am dehumanizing him by disagreeing with him.

The church will not look back on this time and regret saying that homosexuality is wrong.  There will be much repentance over the treatment of homosexuals and how the matter was handled.  I myself have repented of how I have handled this issue.  More love is certainly needed in the matter.  However, more love does not mean less truth.  The Bible makes plain that homosexuality is wrong and the true church will stand by that for the rest of its history.  More people will spring up and use the logic Travis is using.  I pray they see that God loves them and offers His Word for their good.  Only when we repent of our rebellion against God and trust Christ will we find the real humanization we all long for.

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Ref Rage

REF RAGE angry fansThe advent of the new baseball season brings to mind last season’s playoff game in Atlanta.  It was my first playoff baseball game ever and it would turn out to be Chipper Jones’ last game ever.  This game is marked more for the fans’ reaction than about the game itself.  The fans reacted to one of the most egregious umpiring mistakes that took place in the eighth inning.

With two runners on, Braves batter Andrelton Simmons hit a high blooper into left field.  The shortstop for the opposing Cardinals was running out to left field to try and make the play while the left fielder was running in to catch the ball.  It was then that the left field umpire called the infield fly rule.  This is the rule that states that on a fly ball in the infield with runners at least on first and second, the batter is out.  This is a good rule that protects the runners.  However, it was misapplied in this instance.  Instead of having runners on all bases with one out,REF RAGE trash pic there were runners on second and third with two outs and the Braves would go on to lose the game. Of course the manager came out to object.  The fans, not to be out done, made sure everyone knew their objection as this footage from my friend sitting next to me points out.  They spent several minutes hurling food, drinks, and even mustard bottles onto the field out of rage for such a bad call.  Never in my life have I seen such a reaction to any sporting event.

I might be a biased Braves fan but that really does not come into play for the reasons I bring all of this up now.  It struck me that this is an example of people wanting justice.  They want what has been made wrong to be put right.  Every Braves fan there that night felt the pain of being wronged.  They certainly made that clear.  While it is not too classy to hurl bottles and such onto the field, their indignation was very real.  This points us to something bigger.  Our Creator has made us in His image and part of that is a sense of justice.  This instance is minor compared to some other great injustices in the world today.  But this instance shows the outcry of people when they are wronged as well as the desire for things to be put right.

Because we all have this sense of justice, we long for wrong things to be made right.  There is good news.  This is what Jesus came to do.  When He hung on that cross, He took injustices of the world upon himself.  So when you or I do wrong to others, we can ask God to forgive us and He will.  However, the punishment for our wrongs is put onto Christ.  But Jesus did not stay on the cross.  He rose again from the dead which is a foretaste of all things being put new.  The wrongs will be put right again someday.  So let us participate with Christ in putting things right.  We should value justice and work for justice in God ordained ways.  But we must look to the One who brings ultimate justice if we are to have hope in the fight.

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