FAITH ON TRIAL: Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was arrested and sentenced to death in Iran because of his Christian beliefs.
For most Christians, answering whether they believe Jesus is the Son of God, died and rose again for their sins is an easy question with an obvious answer.
It’s easy, that is, for Christians across the United States. However, the same answer guaranteeing eternal life could elsewhere yield a death sentence.
While we can imagine that scenario in, say, first-century Rome, a modern-day pastor facing martyrdom in 2011 is almost unconscionable. But it’s really happening for Youcef Nadarkhani, a Christian pastor imprisoned right now in Iran. Pastor Nadarkhani was arrested two years ago for objecting to the teaching of Islam to Christian children at Iranian schools.
Nadarkhani was convicted of “apostasy” late last month and sentenced to death by the Islamic nation. But the story has taken several strange twists since, with Iranian officials now claiming Nadarkhani actually was convicted of crimes of rape and extortion. This curious 180-degree turn by Iran, in the wake of an international outcry against Nadarkhani’s conviction, has left many observers scratching their heads.
Whatever the latest spin from Iran, it’s clear that Nadarkhani’s commitment to his Christian faith lies at the heart of the case against him. According to the International Business Times, Nadarkhani was deemed an apostate because Iranian clerics determined that his ancestors were followers of Islam and that his professed belief in Christ constituted a rejection of that faith.
Given four chances to “repent and convert to Islam,” the Times reported that Nadarkhani refused. And for that, he was sentenced to die.
“Repent means to return. What should I return to?” he reportedly said in testimony during his four-day trial last month. “To the blasphemy that I had before my faith in Christ? I cannot.”
And I cannot imagine that level of boldness in the face of actual persecution. This is far beyond being called a “Jesus freak” or a “holy roller.” I’ve even evolved to a point of shakingoff discrimination I experience because I’m black or because I’m a woman. I don’t know what process I’d have to go through mentally to fearlessly stare down death just because I believe Jesus is who He said He is.
Yet we all worship among those who are often quick to call it persecution when they become the subject of the latest church gossip, when others disagree withthem, or even when their bosses require themto work on a Sunday. They’ll sing and shout that “no weapon formed against me shall prosper” from Isaiah 54:17, but the battle cry would assuredly have a lower volume if the weapon were death and prospering meant finally meeting Jesus face to face.
Nadarkhani’s case brings home Jesus’ words to his new disciples, formally introduced in Matthew 10, to expect to suffer in much the way He did. While we remember the ridicule, the scorn, and the disregard Jesus suffered and expect to experience it all as we live out a Christian lifestyle, we forget that as He died, we could die also. Western-dwelling Christians have been fortunate to avoid those more serious consequences, but it doesn’t mean it couldn’t or won’t happen.
And the threat for Nadarkhani remains very real, though his lawyer said last week that the sentence could still be overturned. It’s hard to believe, though, considering Iranian officials have more recently accused Nadarkhani of these additional charges. Others argue that even if he evades execution, Nadarkhani could remain in jail.
As much as I am disheartened when I consider Nadarkhani’s plight, I’m encouraged by his faith, which serves as a platform for witnessing to others — just as Jesus said such persecution would. “Physically, he looks weak,” his lawyer said of him last week, as reported by Reuters. “But emotionally his belief in Christ is keeping his spirits high.”
What if it were you in Nadarkhani’s place? Could you be as resolute in your faith?
When you’re Christian and actively trying to live it out past Sunday, you learn that it isn’t as easy to pull off as some make it seem. You risk losing friends because you might not support some of their lifestyle choices. You endure name-calling because you avoid using profanity. Maybe you don’t go out to lunch as often because you’re giving more money to your church. Those are small sacrifices compared to the possibility that Nadarkhani might have to die for just stating and standing by his Christians beliefs. The prospect alone should be a wake-up call for everyone with the freedom to openly proclaim Christ as Savior of the world.
Such a proclamation doesn’t have to come from a bullhorn. It should be evident in the way we live, the way we treat one another, and the way we support various ministries, including our own churches. Above all, though, it should come in how we share with others the ways that Christ’s life has made our lives more meaningful and abundant.
Rather than wavering, our boldness in professing Christ — loving out loud, living to honor Him, and increasing His kingdom — should increase knowing that, at least for the time being, we can do it without the threat of being executed.
QUIET STRENGTH: President Barack Obama, Ruby Bridges, and representatives of the Norman Rockwell Museum view Rockwell’s "The Problem We All Live With,” hanging in a West Wing hallway near the Oval Office. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
With President Barack Obama’s approval rating sinking to new lows, it appears that many of his supporters may soon go from singing “The Thrill is Gone” to “Hey, hey, hey goodbye” in 2012 given, among other woes, general dissatisfaction with economic recovery efforts.
Calls exist from all sides for the president to do something — something that will finally lead to more jobs at the very least and anything at all to put Republicans, Tea Partiers, and other vocal critics in their places.
He’s obviously working, but what he’s done hasn’t been enough to quell criticisms even from his supporters. And I get it. It’s not that I want to take away my own approval rating points from the president. As much as I can identify the reasons behind why progress in some areas is slow, I just wish he’d take on his loudest detractors toe to toe.
People, figuratively out for blood, want to see muscle, the presidential version of WWE-style flexing. They want to scream “Yeah!” behind their guy as he threatens his rivals. Because there’s one president against many entities of everybody else, it seems like it would be easy beef to toss around. After all, Obama is the president, the big cheese, the one with the power to say a few words to shut everyone up.
Alas, that is not Obama’s approach.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, though, considering that in his inaugural address, he reminded us then that “power grows through its prudent use,” and he has continued to demonstrate such usage every step of the way.
He could’ve taken the path of “shock and awe” to go after Osama bin Laden. A massive airstrike, for example, would’ve made an impressive statement, though others could’ve died as a result. Instead, the president sanctioned a more restrained Navy SEAL mission that happened to be successful.
In response to more recent grievances about the economy, the president launched a bus tour in which he listened — not exactly a nuclear-war move. And amid talk of creating new jobs to no evidence of such, Obama plans to address a joint session of Congress Thursday. It would’ve been Wednesday but plans changed presumably to avoid a conflict with a previously scheduled Republican presidential debate. This occurred as yet another example of Obama accommodating the very people leading the charge against him.
Seriously? With all due respect, Mr. President, what’s really going on?
More than trying to accomplish a country with a growing economy offering jobs to everyone who wants to work, Obama seems to be grasping at something even greater — a more perfect union between Democrats and Republicans. Yeah, I’m rolling my eyes too. But that’s why we elected him: That approach is one of those changes we yearned to believe in.
It’s less noisy, less flashy, and a lot more frustrating to watch. But, if a comparison had to be made, well, it’s probably pretty close to what Jesus would do. That’s not to elevate Obama to deity status; it’s just acknowledging how a follower of Christ would act in trying to be like Him.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that Norman Rockwell’s classic painting “The Problem We All Live With” now hangs outside the Oval Office. The painting — which shows U.S. marshals escorting a 6-year-old black girl named Ruby Bridges into a New Orleans elementary school in 1960 as an angry white crowd registers its protest — represents one of our nation’s most powerful moments of racial desegregation. In little Ruby’s simple act of going to school, we see a striking example of quiet strength.
Can we also learn something from President Obama’s repeated gestures of civility and restraint in the face of nasty opposition?
Credit must be given to the president for maintaining a commitment to peace and reconciliation while dodging mud that if one decided to “raise up” would go away so easily. How often have we heard among casual conversations that all Obama needs to do is curse out the GOP one good time to get things done? Not that that would be the holiest approach. We’re called to live holy because Christ is holy. We’re also challenged to hold one another accountable for actions; that’s one of our responsibilities to one another.
Another, as laid out by the prophet Jeremiah, is to avoid boasting in whatever power we have. As president, Obama is a card-carrying member of the bully pulpit, and membership has its privileges. Only, with it comes a certain level of responsibility particularly with the practices of being a Christian.
Nothing represents a firm execution of Christian values more than not exercising the extreme power you might have in a situation in an effort to maintain civility. If it’s a preference on the table, do we want a Christian president who just talks the talk or one who inconveniently walks the walk through hell and high water?
Not only is that change we can believe in; it’s change we already trust as we follow Christ’s example and as we hope our leaders do the same.
As if chemical relaxer burns, alopecia, and unnecessary poverty from the staggering cost of sew-ins and lace fronts wasn’t enough, our hair has found another way to potentially kill us.
U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, who is black and no stranger to black women’s hair concerns, issued a warning last month against the common excuse of skipping exercise to preserve a hairstyle. According to the New York Times, Dr. Benjamin’s remarks to Bronner Bros. International Hair Show attendees aligned with a 2008 study where a third of the women cited their hair as a reason they exercised less often.
“For shame,” I’d like to say, but I’m just as guilty — maybe even more so because my hair is chemically relaxed. I’m in no danger of the regression from straight to curly to kinky that happens when moisture strikes pressed natural hair. I can identify, however, with the sinking feeling brought on by rain when I’ve just dropped $50, $75 or $100 (or more) to get my hair done. And, in case you didn’t know, weaves and wigs aren’t exactly waterproof nor are they cheap. Given the investment, I absolutely think twice before willfully dismantling a style through sweat from a vigorous workout.
Biblically, our hair is our glory, our individual object of pride. When Mary anoints the feet of Jesus and then washes them with her hair, the symbolism of the act of sacrifice is as much about the cost of the oil as the fact that she willingly sullied her hair to honor the Lord. Then and now, regardless of whether we grow ’em or buy ’em, we hold our tresses in high regard. We capitalize on our locks’ ability to influence the jobs we’re offered, determine how we’re treated and even how we’re admired. Ignoring the historical and social context of black women’s hair makes it easy to ridicule the expense of it all and downplay its significance.
But our hair is not as significant as we make it, particularly if we allow it to compromise our bodies so dramatically. Our hair was meant as a covering, not a cross to bear.
Exercise isn’t just for overweight people, and those who don’t engage risk more than obesity but also hypertension, higher levels of bad cholesterol, poor sleep, and increased fatigue. Beyond that, if it’s our desire to positively participate in a movement of God with a broad impact on the world around us, physical health must trump physical beauty, even as the two coexist.
Whether well coiffed or not, we still exist for a greater purpose that we can’t be ready to fulfill if we’re falling apart. We can’t be spiritually strong if we’re physically worn down.
As good stewards of the bodies God gave us — that still belong to Him — we have a responsibility to maintain ourselves as much as possible to fulfill our individual callings. And if that means exercise at the price of a few bad hair days, then so be it. Just keep the flat iron ready for after the workout.
LARGER THAN LIFE: Pastor Zachery Tims' mysterious death sent shockwaves through the faith community.
On Friday night in Apopka, Florida, hundreds of people waited in line for more than an hour to pay their final respects to Rev. Zachery Tims. The 42-year-old megachurch pastor, who was found dead in a New York City hotel room on Aug. 12, will be laid to rest on Saturday morning.
Of all the things to be said about Tims — some great and perhaps not so great — one thing will almost certainly be true: he was a man.
Knowing nothing about this man, I heard “Pastor. Dead. Hotel. New York City,” and my imagination conjured the most depraved of possibilities that could validate the combination of those words. The scattered details following reports of his death, including that of a white powdery substance found on his person, only made my internal speculation worse.
Soon after media confirmed the news, Facebook and Twitter exploded with condolences, expressions of shock, and, in some cases, blame directed at Tims for his own death. He wasn’t new to controversy, after all. Long before his move to Florida, he’d battled drug abuse but said on the church website that he was “miraculously saved, instantly delivered … and called into ministry.” In 2008 he admitted to an affair, and he and his wife later divorced.
Drug abuse and marital problems unfortunately fall into the tragic categories of normal life for normal people. It’s only abnormal when it’s public and it involves the pastor.
How could someone bearing that title and the spiritual responsibility of thousands, commissioned by God with the Spirit upon him to preach the gospel, heal the brokenhearted and preach deliverance to the captives be in the bondage of sin himself? The answer is simple: even the man of God is still a man.
We frequently lose that fact in the face of pastors and other church leaders who appear to have arrived at the place people stake their lives on trying to go.
Many are the best dressed, driving the nicest of cars, and living in houses that look like they’re straight from MTV Cribs. And even for leaders with more modest incomes, preaching every Sunday, they appear smart, confident and even fearless. Their holiness is apparent; their anointing is strong, the words they speak prophetic. They stand over hundreds, thousands, and — thanks to online worship — maybe millions of people, continually holding attention and commanding respect. And if you miss that it’s the Spirit of God holding that man or that woman up, you’d think he or she holds power that no ordinary person does.
Throw in a sense of humor, a certain “swag” (like my pastor), and the good looks of Tims (who was often likened to Will Smith), and you’ve got a larger-than-life superstar who’s everything to everybody every hour of the day.
When this is all we choose to see, we inevitably make titans of our teachers and hold them to a supernatural standard. The pastor becomes our idol — no longer a man of God but, instead, a god of man.
And we know there is only one God, who is God all by Himself. All other manmade gods eventually fall — just as all humanity does, just like any man or woman would. Regardless of his or her position in the church, every believer has the challenge of walking through the struggles of this fallen world in pursuit of God’s truth and the life that comes with it.
Victory over the sin struggle sometimes isn’t so easy, particularly for church leaders who, though surrounded, are isolated physically and spiritually. They cover entire flocks but live uncovered themselves. With little to no support, accountability and the weight of others’ burdens, perhaps anybody would do anything just to endure — even the pastor. Maybe your pastor. Maybe even the late Zachery Tims.
Following the announcement of his death, I read of Tims’ encouraging words, his amazing testimony, and the altruistic work he did as pastor of New Destiny Christian Center. Though I didn’t know him, I’m convinced he probably was a great man, even an anointed man of God — but a man nonetheless.