Saturday, July 11, 2015

When the West Stood Still: The Ravaging of Bosnia

Fikret Alic, the most recognizable "face" of the Bosnian
concentration camp survivors

This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, the single-largest mass execution Europe has seen since Nazi Germany. Between 1992 and 1995, more than 200,000 Bosniaks were exterminated under Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic’s illegitimate “Bosnian Serb Republic”. On July 11, 1995, a two-day killing spree in the town of Srebrenica left nearly 8,000 men (aged 16-75) murdered and dumped in mass graves….while the UN “peacekeeping forces” stood by and did nothing.

Alic today - 20 years later

The “ethnic cleansing” – confirmed as genocide by The Hague and international community, although Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic refuses to call it such – was known and documented by Western journalists for most of the three years it went on. Although much of the world has “moved on”, relatively ignorant of the inter-ethnic war that left a quarter of a million dead or missing, wounds are still fresh in Bosnia. Vucic, who was an ultra-nationalist during the war (and infamously said “for every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Bosniaks”), was attacked with rocks and pelted with water bottles when he attended the memorial service on July 11th in order to extend a formal apology. He is seen as a hypocrite with blood on his hands by the Bosnian people.

When “Never Again” Happened Again

Earlier this year, the world marked the 70-year liberation of Auschwitz – the largest and most infamous Nazi death camp where more than 1.5 million people (most of them Jews) were exterminated. The expression “Never Again” has often been associated with the Holocaust, but the slogan often makes me think of Bosnia and other parts of the Former Yugoslavia where institutionalized “ethnic cleansing” occurred. Neighbors turned against each other – not in the name of religion, as many lazy journalists claimed – but in the name of nationalistic propaganda that revised the past; re-awakened old fears and ethnic hatred; and justified torture, rape, and murder.

It DID happen again.

And the world stood by.

In 1992, as a journalism major at Syracuse University, I wrote my senior thesis on the political situation in what was then Yugoslavia. Slovenia had declared independence first, and in July 1991 Serb forces (under Slobodan Milosevic) invaded seceding Croatia. Hundreds of Croats were killed in the city of Vukovar, which was the beginning of the mass executions. In April 1992, the US and European Community recognized the independence of breakaway Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Muslim-majority territory with roughly 32% Serb population. Sarajevo, the sight of the 1984 Olympics, became known as the city where Serb snipers gunned down civilians in the streets.

Systematic round-ups and killings began – entire towns were razed; their inhabitants deported to concentration camps (Omarska and Trnopolje the largest and most notorious). In his book, “The Tenth Circle of Hell: A Memoir of Life in the Death Camps of Bosnia”, Rezak Hukanovic relates how the Serbian militia controlled all media (and guns) in his hometown of Prijedor and pretended to be “protecting” civilians from “Bosnian Muslim forces” – before forcing them at gunpoint into a basement and transporting them to the prison camp of Omarska. There, Serb soldiers inflicted unspeakable atrocities on the prisoners – their former neighbors, teachers, teammates and friends. Hukanovic describes the anguish of a man cradling his 21-year-old son as he died from starvation and dysentery, and the horror of watching fellow prisoners being mutilated and beaten to death on a daily basis.

All because they were of the wrong “ethnic background”.

Ethnicity, Religion, or an Excuse for Vengeance?

The Serbs distinguished the population along three lines: Serb, Croat and Muslim. “Muslim” is not an ethnic description as are the first two; but rather, a religion. At the risk of painting with too broad of a brush, citizens of the Former Yugoslavia (as elsewhere in the Balkans) are not particularly devout adherents of any religion. Although most Serbs identify nominally as “Christians” and Bosniaks are officially “Muslim”, these labels are generally in the most nominal sense possible. The Balkans are a very secular region (although extremely nationalistic). The conflict was never about religion. Its roots were deep in historical alliances – who sided with whom during the Ottoman Empire; the Nazi occupation; which people groups enjoyed favored status under Jozef Tito, who died in 1980.

Manjaca concentration camp
Grudges were brought front and center in the post-Communist breakup of six nations “re-unified” after WWII. Lifelong friends and neighbors turned against each other – driven by the revisionist history and hate-filled propaganda of Milosevic’s regime. In economic crisis, the national psyche was as ripe for manipulation as that of the Germans after WWI. (The 1998 film, “Shot Through the Heart”, is an extremely realistic and accurate look at how this happened. Angelina Jolie’s more recent film “In the Land of Blood and Honey” chillingly portrays the sexual slavery into which Serb forces conscripted Bosnian women.)

In one of the less-graphic passages of his book, Hukanovic describes a camp transfer:
“The buses stopped at the entrance to the village of Omarska. Every prisoner with a serious or visible wound was ordered off the bus. No one volunteered, since they knew this meant a slit throat or, as the Serbs liked to call it, “the shortcut.” Then a guy named Mrdja came barreling onto the bus with a club and began beating everyone; he just stepped on the prisoners lying on the floor between the rows of seats as he flailed away. Djemo got hit twice on the head and once on the side, in his ribs. He again felt that unutterable pain, but he neither moved nor cried out. Such responses only further excited the wild beasts. As the trip continued, Mrdja and his “interventionists” often stopped the bus to “intervene”.

During the time this was going on, I was living in Bulgaria – only vaguely aware of the atrocities being committed in the neighboring country of Bosnia. Most Bulgarians were concerned about the war in the former Yugoslavia insofar as it affected them economically - with the trade sanction imposed on Serbia, Bulgaria lost its biggest source of commerce. Journalists were given limited access to the camps, and while there were reporters documenting the mass graves and genocide, not much news seemed to be on the general public’s consciousness. On the whole, we were somewhat unaware of the scale of violence and atrocities against civilians happening just 350 miles away, while living a normal “European” life in Sofia.

To put that in geographic perspective for American readers, imagine you are enjoying a latte in a cafĂ© in San Francisco. Meanwhile, down in Los Angeles, men are being rounded up and sent to concentration camps – or shot; their bodies dumped in mass graves.

Unthinkable, isn’t it?

"In Omarska as in Auschwitz the masters created these walking corpses from healthy men by employing simple methods: withhold all but the barest nourishment, forcing the prisoners' bodies to waste away; impose upon them a ceaseless terror by subjecting them to unremitting physical cruelty; immerse them in degradation and death and decay, destroying all hope and obliterating the will to live.
"We won't waste our bullets on them," a guard at Omarska, which the Serbs set up in a former open-pit iron mine, told a United Nations representative in mid-1992. "They have no roof. There is sun and rain, cold nights, and beatings two times a day. We give them no food and no water. They will starve like animals." (Source: Frontline “The Horrors of a Camp Called Omarska and the Serb Strategy”)
Bosniak survivors
There are so many unanswered questions about the Bosnian genocide. Why didn’t the United Nations do anything? Given the footage of the horrors of Omarska and Trnopolje, why weren’t the concentration camps liberated? The Red Cross was already on the ground. Why did it take 13 years to extradite Radovan Karadzic to the Hague to face a tribunal for war crimes? (As of this writing, he is still awaiting sentencing). Why did it take NATO and the United States three years to begin any effective military intervention? At Saturday’s memorial to the Srebrenica victims, former US President Bill Clinton admitted that he had done too little, too late to save the victims. After the war ended in the autumn of 1995, with over 200,000 Bosnians dead and 2 million refugees, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke called the war “the greatest failure of the West since the 1930s”.

The Ripple Effect – and Implications for Christians

Returning to the United States in 1995, I was shocked and dismayed at how little many Americans seemed to know about the “ethnic cleansing” that had just occurred in the center of Europe. Some were only vaguely aware that there was even a country called “Yugoslavia”, or that there had been a war. During the summer of the Srebrenica massacre, the American media seemed more interested in bringing rouge figure skater Tonya Harding to justice than Karadzic or Milosevic. Although collective knowledge of Hitler’s genocide is quite high in the United States, fewer people are aware of the tens of millions killed in Stalin’s purges; the Armenian genocide (which preceded and inspired Hitler’s extermination of the Jews), or the Bosnian genocide. This is dangerous, as history keeps repeating itself...while we entertain ourselves to death. Moreover, Christians in particular need to be aware of what happened in Bosnia – and how Bosnians themselves view Christianity because of it.

In the Foreword of “The Tenth Circle of Hell”, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote:
 “How to explain such cruelty, such sadism, among people who only yesterday lived in brotherhood with their victims of today? Why, among them, such a thirst to hurt, to injure, to humiliate human beings whose only wrong – whose only “crime” – is to believe in Mohammed rather than in Jesus?”
That passage – written by a Jewish author questioning the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslim Bosniaks, should make any Christian cringe. And yet, imagine you are from a country terrorized by aggressors claiming the Name of Christ. It is inconceivable for us American evangelicals (who presumably read our Bibles and go to church), but the Serb forces claimed to be “Christian” – no matter how nominally. It disgusts me to type this, but there were reports of Serbian Orthodox priests blessing the troops – often drunk on rakia – before they went off on killing sprees of their Muslim countrymen (and raping their women). These monsters did not believe in Jesus either, of course; and relatively few of their victims had much interest in Mohammed. Nevertheless, religious propaganda is a powerful tool, and was used brutally and effectively in the former Yugoslavia to take vengeance. It does little good to protest “But they were not real Christians!” when it was under the pretext of the Church that genocide was carried out.
Mothers mourn victims of the Srebrenica Massacre, 20 years later

Is it any wonder, then, that Bosnia remains, 20 years later, the most unreached nation in Europe with the Gospel? According to the Pew Research Center, 93% of Bosnians say that most or all of their close friends are Muslims, and between 14-16% say they would be comfortable with their son or daughter marrying a Christian. While Bosnia remains a secular nation, it has become a prime target for Islamic “evangelists” coming from the East. These well-funded groups build schools and mosques and view Bosnia as a prime recruiting ground for their terrorist organizations (despite the fact that nearly 95% of Bosniaks distrust Islamic extremism).

In Bosnia, (as in neighboring Kosovo, which also endured atrocities and human rights violations for years under the Serbs), Christianity is seen as the religion of the enemy. Distrust towards Christians of all stripes is common when conversion becomes an issue – much more so than in neighboring countries (which, despite having a Christian “tradition”, cannot be considered “Christian nations” in any sense). This makes for an extremely difficult mission field, and generations will be needed before the wounds of war start to heal. The fact that the Christian faith was hijacked and bastardized by evil men who never knew God is not in question. However, a true understanding of the Gospel is hard to convey when one’s entire family has been wiped out in the name of religion.

The commemorative expression “Never Again” needs to be applied to Bosnia as much as to the earlier, enormous genocide of 6 million Jews in 20th century Europe. Their lives mattered, and the tragedy must be remembered. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that the media dutifully reported; the world knew; politicians hemmed and hawed – and nothing was done. Three years; a quarter of a million men, women and children obliterated; and “ethnic cleansing” continued unabated in the middle of Europe.

The rape and destruction of Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Banja Luka, Omarska and the rest of Bosnia must never be forgotten.

Never again, indeed. 
A candle-light memorial in Belgrade, Serbia to honor the victims of Srebrenica

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Fulfilling the Great Commission… in the Internet Age

Fulfilling the Great Commission… in the Internet Age
(Originally published in Albanian, "Ilira Revistë")

By Marie Notcheva

How is Social Networking Changing Us?

Despite the fact that we live in a society where it is now possible to contact someone across the world through a Skype call, instant message, or video chat, the technology that makes global communication possible now makes us less likely to interact in person.  A 2010 British study showed that one quarter of adults socialize more online than they do in person. Eleven percent of people choose to stay indoors and talk online, even when the opportunity to go out with friends arises. Many sociologists observe that social media is destroying our interpersonal skills.

I have also noticed that attention seeking, self-absorption, and depression increases among young women with their social media use. Social media, by definition, encourages self-promotion – or rather, promotion of a carefully-designed image one wants the world to see. I have seen girls as young as 13 dressed immodestly, striking provocative poses – to get positive feedback. Many young women, including Christians, fall into the trap of promoting a “bad girl” image online, which does not represent their true personalities. This presents an additional challenge to having spiritual conversations online: which “self” am I speaking with? The image that the young woman wants to present to the world (through her pouting “selfies” and tormented Tumblr pictures), or the hungry soul inside, seeking Christ?

In 2011, a Christian website claimed: Online Evangelism Ministry Reaches 687,000 in One Day!” A ministry which records Gospel presentations based on website hits claimed that of that total number of “hearers”, 56,854 people indicated a decision for Jesus Christ by clicking a button. In total, the ministry said it presented the Gospel 112 million times in 2010.

Is this really what the Lord meant when He commanded His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations”? Can we really reduce the Person, work and call of Jesus Christ to a digital page?

The goal of online outreach is ambitious. Using available technology to spread the Gospel is a worthy endeavor, and social media should be used for God’s glory. The fastest, most effective way of communicating a message is to use the Internet for transmission to the furthest corners of the globe. However, it is just this mindset – the fast-and-effective, “microwave” mentality – that is the undoing of online evangelism. We can’t pre-package the Gospel and expect instant converts.

The Importance of Relationship

Church planters who have studied evangelism methods say that most people who have trusted Christ did so because of an influential Christian in their life. In 2013, my church surveyed members about their conversion. Many people cited a friend or relative’s personal witness; someone who cared and was willing to invest time and love in their life. Clearly, God’s plan to use His people as His ambassadors to a lost world has not changed.

The key to effective online evangelism – as well as ongoing discipleship and counsel – lies in establishing relationship. The relationship should be two-fold, however: both between the online “mentor” and seeker (or new believer); and subsequently, between the new believer and his/her local church. Establishing a connection in a local, doctrinally-sound church is a crucial part of “online ministry”. Without personal connection, a new believer is unlikely to grow – even if he has someone on the other end of a computer answering his doctrinal questions.

Cyber Discipleship and Biblical Counseling: Advantages and Pitfalls

There is no greater joy than watching a friend accept Christ and grow in faith, especially if you have had a part in it. In fact, younger believers often find it easier to confide in someone online than to discuss their concerns with a pastor. But no virtual mentoring, no matter how solid, can replace in-person guidance. A good way to view “online discipleship” is simply to be there, as an encouraging friend, while helping new Christians get connected to a local church. Online discipleship cannot take place in a vacuum – believers may benefit from your contact greatly, but still need personal teaching, corporate worship, and fellowship (Hebrews 10:25).

Daniel, a Russian missionary, shared a story which demonstrates how social networking can be used as a springboard for effective evangelism. Twenty-year-old Dmitriy asked Daniel to teach him more about God and the Bible, which Daniel did, through Facebook. They had several exchanges before Daniel contacted a fellow believer in Dmitriy’s city and asked him to meet with him. Two weeks later, Daniel received a message from Dmitriy, saying that his “second birthday” had come…and thanking him for helping lead him to Christ.

Such stories are common in this age of global communication. A crucial component, however, was Daniel’s arranging for Dmitriy to meet with a local believer. Dmitriy’s needs and questions could be addressed in person. One difficulty in attempting to “disciple” online is not being able to determine when a professed Christian actually does not understand a spiritual concept. Often, someone will say “yes, I see” or agree without true comprehension. Later on, you may discover you are attempting to “disciple” someone who still lacks saving faith. Another difficulty is accountability – a necessary component of discipleship. You cannot really know what is going on in an internet friend’s life unless she chooses to share it with you; and she is free to reject your counsel or stop communicating.

Counseling is similar to discipleship, in that its goal is to equip believers to grow in obedience to Christ’s commands, but usually deals with a specific problem. Much of our training is in systematic theology, and our task is to then communicate truth that the Christian may apply to her life and solve the problem biblically (Romans 15:14). Many counselors now offer the option of “traditional” or “Skype” sessions. Although I have counseled many women around the world by Skype and e-mail, I believe it should only be used as a last resort when there is no other possibility.

Voice-over-IP programs such as Skype, instant message, and e-mail have made counseling possible to believers world-wide. Biblical counselors are somewhat scarce in most countries, and being able to provide Scriptural support to a struggling brother or sister abroad is a privilege.  When counseling sessions are done from a distance, the non-verbal cues we notice in personal conversation are now absent. Using a webcam helps, but meeting in person enables the counselor to pick up on subtle body language. Does the counselee understand what you are teaching? Does she agree? Is she telling the truth? If you are speaking through a computer, it is harder to determine!

One 18-year-old I counseled was from a Christian family. She had attended my church for several years and been baptized, but within the first 10 minutes of our initial session it became clear to me - from her hesitant answers and confusion in her eyes - that she did not understand salvation. It certainly would have been much harder to catch that confusion so early if the encounter had been through instant message (or even Skype). The “counseling session” then turned into a very successful evangelism encounter!

How, Then, Shall They Hear?

The internet has made information sharing possible on a scale the early Church could not have imagined. As Gene Edward Veith Jr. writes in “Christians in a .Com World”, “Just as Christians latched on to the printing press, so should they grab hold of the Internet for the Kingdom of God. The whole universe is His domain, including the world of information translated into data packs, fed through high-speed routers, and sent off on fiber-optic lines. This new technology is a chance to exercise discernment, take some risks, and possibly change the world.”  The key to using it wisely is realizing its limits. Some questions to keep in mind when discussing the Gospel through a written medium include:

·         Is the person to whom you are witnessing a seeker? Is he asking questions, on his own initiative; or did you initiate the discussion?
·         Is the person willing attend a local church?
·         Do your friend’s questions, responses and contributions to the discussion indicate a true understanding of regeneration, is she simply “agreeing” with what you say?
·         Are your conversations two-way, or are you giving a theological monologue?
If you desire to impact your online friends for Christ, there are many ways to do so. Every situation is unique, and there is no right or wrong formula for a “successful” encounter. In all cases, avoid thinking of people as “projects” or strictly as potential converts. Relationship is of paramount importance. Remain faithful to the Gospel message and accept that you may be simply planting a seed, and may not be the one to see conversion or fruit in a new believer’s life. Be willing to point a believer to a local church for long-term discipleship. And above all, be prepared to love unconditionally – to stay involved in an online friend’s life, no matter what happens spiritually.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Biblical Counseling Coalition Reviews "Redeemed from the Pit"

My book was reviewed last week by The Biblical Counseling Coalition

Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance And Restoration From The Bondage of Eating Disorders by Marie Notcheva

Redeemed from the Pit is a solid read for the biblical counselor who is looking to expand their understanding on this important topic and for anyone seeking to overcome an eating disorder or is ministering to someone who is enslaved to the lifestyle. The personal story victory and practical application of Gospel truth makes this a great resource.

In the Pit of Despair

As a biblical counselor and as a person who was once diagnosed with bulimorexia, I took on the challenge of reading Marie Notcheva’s book, Redeemed from the Pit: Biblical Repentance and Restoration from the Bondage of Eating Disorders book for both personal and professional reasons. I have had a love/hate relationship with food all my life. Like Marie, I once struggled with binging and purging and I alternated those behaviors with starvation.  
From the introduction to the end of the book, Marie makes it clear to the reader that eating disorders are not a physical disease from which a person recovers but a spiritual disease from which a person must repent. 
Marie’s personal story is weaved throughout this great book. She gives vivid details of how her early years provided the perfect mental and emotional set up for the development of her eating disorder. The culture of the late 1960’s and early 70’s that subjected women to consistent expectations of thinness and beauty fueled the fires of shame ignited by her family’s careless words about her weight and appearance. Her mother in particular (who appeared to struggle with her own food issues) was exceedingly fearful Marie would be overweight and suffer consequences to her health. She enrolled Marie in a toddler dance class to slim her down and restricted her access to sugar and starches.
At age 11, Marie began taking gymnastics. By 14, with gymnast Nadia Comaneci as her idol, she began a lifestyle of severe calorie restriction and over exercise. The highly competitive worlds of gymnastics and dance fueled her desire to become sylphlike. While she got the desired results through constant exercise and living on Slim-Fast and vegetables, the following year she determined to eat as much as she wanted, eliminating the food binge through vomiting.
In a very short amount of time, Marie’s binge/purge lifestyle was out of control. It was clear to everyone around her she needed help. Her health was in serious jeopardy. While referred to psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists, they were unable to breach the concrete protecting her heart. 

A Way Out

In her sophomore year at college, she joined Campus Crusade and put her faith in Christ. She continued her secret lifestyle while active in Cru, Bible study, and discipleship. A job abroad followed college and her slavery to bulimia remained an active part of everyday life. She also began to drink heavily as a way to medicate the constant guilt and shame she lived with.
Marriage and children did not expose or alter her bulimia, although her husband did express concern about her drinking.
Marie writes at length about the self-disgust she experienced. It caused her to question her salvation and consider herself a hypocrite. She felt hopeless and at times she feared God had rejected her. However, she had such a desire to return to Him that she continuously tried to turn away from her sin. In desperation, she met with a small group of Christian women who prayed over her. It was then that she began to find freedom from alcohol and bulimia.  
From this point forward in the book, Marie develops the inward battle of change at the heart level. She describes her battle with overcoming her eating disorder both on the physical and spiritual level and does not shrink away from describing the difficulties she faced or her failures in overcoming the desire to binge and purge. She notes, “Overcoming an eating disorder requires our constant, active commitment to inward change” (7). 

Living Free

She urges the reader to “be one who believes” in the power of the Gospel as the means to transform life from victimhood to victorious in Christ, rightly emphasizing the critical need for repentance in overcoming an eating disorder.
“Forgiven, cleansed, and given a new start, He expects you to get up off your knees and get started—walking in repentance” (6).
Marie carefully breaks down the numerous issues of the heart that a person with eating disorder behaviors must repent of to overcome this sin and live victoriously. There is an entire chapter devoted to the believers position in Christ, which is very important for a woman with an eating disorder to understand since so much of her thinking is performance oriented. Marie brings forth the truth about the role emotions play in how a person thinks about food. This is vital since those with unhealthy eating habits believe many lies about food.
Throughout the book, there are application steps that make use of charts and Scripture memorization. There is also an entire chapter on practical issues that a person with disordered eating faces. Marie highlights the refining benefits of a biblical counseling relationship and involvement in a local church. 
This book is a solid read for the biblical counselor who is looking to expand their understanding on this important topic and for anyone seeking to overcome an eating disorder or is ministering to someone who is enslaved to the lifestyle. The personal story victory and practical application of Gospel truth makes this a great resource. 
Julie Ganschow

Julie Ganschow

Julie Ganschow has been involved in biblical counseling and discipleship for over a decade. She ministers to women through Biblical Counseling for Women and writes a daily blog on counseling issues. She is a staff member at Reigning...
Read More about Julie Ganschow →

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Futile, Powerless God of Henri Nouwen

"Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God's house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God." – Henri Nouwen 

The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 used to be my favorite Bible passage. Until a contemplative mystic priest named Henri Nouwen ruined it for me.

Several years ago, I wrote about my brief encounter with "contemplative Christianity", which I was introduced to through the works of Brennan Manning, Richard Foster, and Basil Pennington. Although I was a much younger Christian and could not discern that their practices of "inner seeing" and "hearing" God were not biblical (through trance-like meditation, extreme fasting, repetition of mantras, "breath prayers" and other mystical practices), I started to get the sense that something was just "off" about it all. Naturally, unbiblical practice and adding "spiritual disciplines" (that have more in common with paganism than Scripture) will shape one's theology.

These men, and many more like them - Thomas Merton; Henri Nouwen; David G. Benner - claimed to be Christians at one time, (gradually transitioning to a theistic Buddhism - Merton converted entirely to Buddhism while still a Catholic monk) but in fact their theology has more in common with Eastern religions than Christianity. Christian mysticism is itself an oxymoron - see here for more info about contemplative spirituality, and it's connection with the New Age.

Contemplative prayer, by design, focuses on having a mystical experience with God. It was while reading one of Benner's books, "The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call of Self-Discovery" that God gave me a wake-up call. I began what would become a 10-year journey, researching theistic philosophies such as pantheism, panentheism, universal salvation, trancendental meditation (which contemplatives call "the silence"), etc. Another four years of theological training to become a biblical counselor helped solidify my ability to "test all things", and compare teachings to the Bible's clear teaching.

Nevertheless, it was with some anticipation that I picked up Henri Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son" recently, as a Christian friend recommended it. A meditation (in the Christian sense of the word!) on Rembrandt's famous painting, I settled in to enjoy the sensitive priest's insights into this beautiful picture of God's love.

As I began reading, two things emerged by the end of the Introduction: Nouwen was a man who sincerely loved the Lord and His people. And, he was firmly in the contemplative/mystical camp (a fact I already knew), but the casual reader, unfamiliar with the New Age terminology used by contemplatives, might not pick that up. Words may be ascribed different meanings by different people, which makes doctrinal error so slippery. I began to take notes.

The Good, the Bad, and the Blasphemous

There was much that was very, very good in "Prodigal Son". There was nothing mystical in his analysis and personal reflection on the painting per se, or in how he inserted himself into the parable - to identify with each of the three main characters. Many of his points about grace, accepting forgiveness, and the unconditional love of the Father were excellent, especially coming from a Catholic writer. “More than any other story in the Gospel, the parable of the Prodigal Son expresses the boundlessness of God’s compassionate love. And when I place myself in that story under the light of that divine love, it becomes painfully clear that leaving home is much closer to my spiritual experience than I might have thought.” Nouwen deeply sought fellowship with Christ. The problem, as evidenced by his faulty theology, is that he was seeking it in broken cisterns - not in the Word of God.

Before the end of the first section, a study on the younger son himself, Nouwen referred to "inner light", "inner seeing", and "inner healing". All of these may sound like fairly benign terms to one unfamiliar with mysticism, but they all point towards the "going within to find enlightenment" theophostic philosophy taken from Eastern religions. (Christianity, by contrast, teaches us that we need a new spirit and a new heart - and to look to Jesus). In all of the ways Nouwen mentioned how he "heard from God" - most notably, "in the center of [his] being", he never once mentioned the Bible. For even an immature believer, this should be a major red flag - the way God specifically reveals Himself to us is through His Word. Not through mystical means, which are condemned in Scripture (Deut. 18:9-12a).

The vast majority of what Nouwen wrote about our propensity to "flee to the wilderness", away from God's love, and the thought-patterns (insecurity; pride; comparison and jealousy) that harden our hearts was excellent. His insights into the human condition and how we relate to God rivaled those of any Reformed biblical counselor. I would just start to relax and enjoy the book when I would be blind-sided by a heretical statement such as "Judas sold the sword of his sonship" (and thus lost his salvation), or "I am touching here the mystery that Jesus himself became the prodigal son for our sake.”

A Powerless God?

According to Nouwen, God is "powerless" to prevent His children's rebellion (p. 90); "naive" (p. 99); "both Father and Mother" (p. 94); "she" and "her" (p. 96); "needs me as much as I need Him" (p.99) and the real sin is "ignoring [our] 'original goodness' (p. 101). The final section of the book, on the Father, is where Nouwen's faulty view of God became most apparent and the entire analysis fell apart.

Let's compare Henri Nouwen's god with the God of Scripture. Sovereignty means that God, as the ruler of the Universe, has the right to do whatever he wants. He is in complete control over everything that happens. (Psalm 115:3; Daniel 4:35; Romans 9:20.) He has no need of anything outside of Himself; and He is not standing like a beggar, hat in hand, needful of our love (as is the case with Nouwen's god.)

Further, Nouwen's idealistic view that ALL are children of God and have "original goodness" completely contradicts what Scripture states about unregenerate man: Abominable – Rev. 21:8 Sinners – Rev. 22:15 Fault finders – Job 41 Corrupt – Psalm 14:1,3; Rom. 3:10 Evil – 2 Tim 3:13 (just to name a few unsavory characteristics).

Perhaps most bizarre was Nouwen's dogged insistence - straight out of Wiccan and New Age belief systems - that God is feminine as well as masculine; both Mother and Father. The Bible clearly teaches that God is Father; it's not really open to debate or interpretation.

The Price of Error

False teaching is often hard to spot, precisely because it sounds so good. It's usually mixed in with just enough Truth to be palatable. But to anyone with a strong grasp of Scripture, the problem with Nouwen's doctrine - especially his view of salvation and the nature of God - should have been obvious. (I had deliberately NOT shared my personal opinion while pointing out the book's shortcomings, but followed a clear-cut format: "Nouwen says: X. The Bible says:Y.") Scripture speaks for itself.

How can Bible-believing Christians, when faced with such clear-cut instances of deviant theology, not spot the error? How is a blood-bought child of God not horrified by Nouwen's powerless God; rejection of original sin and depravity of man; universal salvation (many paths lead to God), and blasphemous statements that God is "Mother" and Christ "became the Prodigal Son"? I have only one answer to this: deception by emotional investment. It is willful deception that, when shown the clear words of Scripture, rejects them for the sake of defending the heretic. I will never be able to read Luke 15 again without the bitter taste of false teaching in my mouth.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rooted, Grounded, and Plugged In: My Article on Albanian Youth Ministry in "Modern Reformation"

This month's issue of "Modern Reformation" magazine just published my article on youth ministry in Albania, based on my missions trips and follow-up with teenagers there over the last couple of years. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

When Did "Lent" Become Protestant?

Since my kids are home on school vacation this week, I have been able to check some of the blogs I used to read with regularity. Along with Facebook posts, I have noticed a surprisingly high number of "devotionals" and essays about Lent, Ash Wednesday, and how the respective authors plan to observe this liturgical season.

All of said authors are Protestants, and most would claim allegiance to Reformed theology. What I'm trying to figure out is this: when, and more importantly why, did "Lent" become part of the spiritual landscape for Bible-believing Christians?

I'm not knocking the observance as a spiritual discipline, mind you. If someone finds a way to draw closer to Christ, more power to him (or her). I'm just genuinely confused as to why a born-again believer feels the need to "give up" something at a particular time of year in order to increase intimacy with Christ....when the whole premise of the Christian faith rests on the completed work on the Cross (and daily obedience to the Lord's commands.) An article in Christianity Today, which, once upon a time, was a Protestant Evangelical magazine, begins thus:
There is something decidedly public about Ash Wednesday. Walking around all day with a gash of gray ash across one's forehead—this is among the most visible Christian things I do each year. This is a rare day when I cannot and could not hide my Christian commitments and my Christian aspirations, even if I wanted to.

This year, I will be joining many Episcopal priests in taking the public witness of Ash Wednesday one step further. On Wednesday, my colleague Catherine Caimano and I will put on cassocks and surplices, and go to a corner near Duke University Hospital with small containers of ashes and copies of a litany of repentance from the Book of Common Prayer. We will offer "the imposition of ashes" to people in the street.
This whole mindset seems to fly in the face of Matthew 6:6, which discourages such showy displays of public "piety": But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

More importantly, however, is the fact that in terms of devotion to Christ, we should be seeking to live in holiness all the time. Boxing obedience into a six-week period every year contradicts what the whole Christian life is supposed to be about: picking up our cross daily, in joyful obedience to the One Who has already redeemed us. Mark 7:8-9 seems to warn against the ritualistic observance of such man-made traditions, which by definition foster a sense of "spiritual smugness".

Note the image at the top of this entry. See the flawed logic? We should be turning away from sin EVERY DAY. Not during the man-made "season of Lent". And forgoing chocolate (or gum, or Facebook) has nothing to do with holiness -- and NO, it will NOT lead you closer to God. Sorry to burst any bubbles out there.....that's not what the Bible teaches.

What are your thoughts? Can there be value in going an extra mile, so to speak, at a particular time during the year?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"Jesus Daily" Seems to Be Another Jesus...

A few months back, I posted a "defense" of Facebook and social media, from the perspective that Internet and technology in general can be used for productive things....most notably, evangelism and discipleship. I shared about the girls who came to the Lord after discussing their questions and budding faith with me via Facebook chat. (I have an article coming out in the May/June issue of "Modern Reformation" magazine about how short-term missions can really count long-term in this age of online communications.)

Well, today, I would like to introduce you to one of the most visible downsides of "Facebook evangelism" - Facebook Jesus.

"Jesus Daily" is some sort of devotional Christian group, which posts status updates in the first if coming personally from Jesus Christ. Probably half the Christians I know are subscribed (I "Liked" after seeing several of my "Albania Kids" subscribing, more out of curiosity than anything else. I do not rely on Facebook for spiritual edification or theological instruction, in case you are wondering.)

This "Jesus" seems big on "Friend suggesting" Himself to your Facebook friends. (Cringe). "Friend suggesting" Jesus seems to be symbolic of everything that's wrong with modern evangelism, in a manner of speaking.

A sampling of the "wisdom" coming from "Jesus" in the last few days:
YOU AND I CAN DO EVERYTHING TOGETHER! Remember when I promised you, "With God all things are possible"? Well I was serious. What problem do we need to work on today? Like or type Yes if you believe My Words.

(This demands some comment -- since when do we share the Gospel with people, promising that Jesus will solve all their problems?? This is a dangerous half-truth.)
I am significant in Christ!
I am a Citizen of Heaven!
I am free forever from condemnation!
I am free from any charge against me!
I am assured all things work together for good!
I cannot be separated from the love of God!
Write an "Amen" if you can or LIKE to agree!

All about "me", huh? Not that these statements are entirely untrue -- but they are man-centric rather than Christ-centered. We live not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify CHRIST. Like many modern "praise" songs, the object is self, rather than God.

Umm....this one needs no comment.

CHRIST is our BEST medicine!!! LIKE if you agree then read about Natural Cures from God's Pharmacy...PLEASE SHARE to bless others!
(It then links to a site entitled "Natural Cures from God's Pharmacy".) Sounds like a late-night info-mercial.
A little context here would be helpful...does this mean that if I ask for a Porsche, I will receive it? Smacks of "Prosperity Gospel", does it not?

Moral of the story: if you want to hear from the Lord Jesus, open your Bible. You're probably not going to hear from Him on Facebook. Social media is a tool to be used wisely in sharing the Truth, but not by telling the masses soothing, positive words devoid of any context.