It’s Not Where You Start, It’s Where You Finish

I was watching AD the Bible Continues, a fabulous series on NBC this spring, produced by Roma Downey, a devout Catholic and her husband, Mark Burnett.  AD dramatizes the first half of Acts of the Apostles.  It’s gritty and extremely well done.  If you’re a Christian and want to grab the attention of millennials used to watching TV shows such as Game of Thrones or Walking Dead, AD is the way to do it.  The show prompts you to pick up the Bible and read it for yourself, which is awesome.

Back to AD the Bible Continues…a few weeks ago viewers were introduced to Saul of Tarsus.  Saul, a devout Jew, wasn’t taking the “blasphemy” of the new believers in Jesus lightly.  He was intent on tracking them down like animals.  He was there when the first martyr, Stephen, was stoned to death and he reveled in the bloodshed and thirsted for more.  His plan was to murder every last disciple.  After going house to house in Jerusalem and pulling out every man, woman, and child and throwing them in prison, Saul finds himself on that road to Damascus committed to find any believers who had scattered after his attacks.  However, things didn’t go as planned.  Instead of Saul finding the followers of Jesus, arresting them, and dragging them back to Jerusalem, Jesus finds Saul and everything changes.  Saul went from being the hunter to the hunted and from persecuting believers to becoming one of them—and not just any one of them.  Saul, or as we know him, Paul1, became the energizer bunny of evangelism.

Out of all the people in the New Testament, I find St. Paul to be one of the most fascinating.  The apostles knew Jesus.  He was their friend.  They lived with Him for three years; they were there through His many miracles, teachings, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and His Ascension.  Paul, like us, did not know Jesus in the physical sense, and like us, he was blinded from the truth.  His letters to the early churches are deep.  How many of us listen to Paul’s words but never truly grasp their meaning?  If you’re lucky to have a pastor who explains in detail or a teacher who has great knowledge of the Bible I can guarantee Paul’s message will leave you speechless.

Paul’s message is great, but what of his life after meeting Jesus?  It was a tremendous journey filled with peril, sacrifice, torture, imprisonment, and the joy of spreading the word of Jesus Christ and converting the Gentiles, and ultimately ending in martyrdom, which he knew he would face.  He knew his mission and he went after it with a zeal matched by few.  Even when his worldly life was coming to a close he kept his eye on the prize, as summed up in 2 Timothy 4:7 “I have fought the good fight to the end, I have run the race to the finish, I have kept the faith.”  How many of us at the end of our lives can say that?  St. Paul began his life as a not such a good person, but he finished as a rock star.  It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.

Speaking of television shows, there is a new one premiering this summer called Proof.  It’s very similar to its predecessors; They Came Back, Resurrection, and The Returned.  All are fantasies about “life after life.”  Unlike AD, which is Bible based, Proof is based on an actress portraying a doctor who has gone through the fictitious death of her son, a fictitious divorce, and a fictitious rift with her fictitious teenage daughter.  An actor portraying a billionaire with fictitious cancer, who is facing fictitious death, hires her to find answers from psychics, ghost hunters, and people who have experienced near death experiences2.

Yesterday I read that researchers at the Mayo Clinic believe they’ve “cracked the code” to happiness3.  Do you know what it is?  The research shows the biggest hindrance to being happy is too much thinking about one’s self.  Really?  Jesus said that over 2,000 years ago!  Love others as you love yourself.  People in the US are screaming for truth.  They are yearning for God; they are looking for answers but instead of seeking Him, they rely on supernatural fantasy put out by Hollywood because somehow that’s more believable than the Bible?  They’ll take the word of fiction writers over that of God?   I keep hearing about the new evangelization.  How and when do we begin?

The problem is we can’t evangelize unless we actually stand for something.  We can’t preach the Word unless we live it.  You can’t succeed with a church full of “cafeteria-style” Christians and expect to show the world this is what it means to be Christian.  This little light of mine can’t shine under a basket.  You can’t pick and choose the laws that are to your liking.  Several churches that bend to the pressure of the culture find that out the hard way.  Their numbers go down instead of going up.  I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.  It does not mean I hate gays.  I believe in the sanctity of all life, including life in the womb.  It doesn’t mean I hate women who’ve had an abortion.  Nobody wants to offend anyone.  I certainly don’t.  St. Augustine said, “With love for mankind and hatred of sins.”4

In order to evangelize you must believe in something—I mean really believe.  Stand strong in it so firmly that you would die for it because you know it’s true.  I recently heard a story about a father in the Middle East who was given the opportunity by ISIS to spare his children if they converted to the Muslim faith.  He went to his priest for guidance who told him to go ahead.  God will understand if they converted.  The man rushed home only to find ISIS asking his children who they believed in and before the father could intervene the children shouted “Jesus!”

My journey and yours is not yet over.  For years it’s been relatively easy in the United States to be Christian.  Not so any more and I fear it’s going to get worse.  In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, “The ultimate test of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy.”  It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.

Will you fight the good fight?  Will you finish the race?  Will you keep the faith?

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1 God did not change Saul’s name to Paul, a popular myth.  “Saul was a born Jewish and his Hebrew name was Saul, but because his father was a Roman citizen (and therefore Saul inherited Roman citizenship), Saul also had the Latin name, Paul.  After his conversion he was determined to bring the gospel to Gentiles, so he dusted off his Roman name and became, Paul, a name Gentiles were familiar with.”  Catholic Answers To Explain & Defend The Faith.

2 TNT.com

3 CBS New York newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/6/05/researchers-cracked-code-happiness

4 St. Augustine Letter 211 (c.424)

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Days Go By

Keith Urban makes some of the best uplifting, fun music in country music.  Unfortunately, I can’t say this article is upbeat or fun.  With each passing day I find myself at times mystified, angry, and depressed all at the same time.  Why can’t my fellow American citizens, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists etc. see what is happening in our world?  The systematic extermination of Christians in the Middle East and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe are very real and very dangerous.  Is it because it’s “over there” as compared to here?  Yes, I write articles, post on Facebook, and tell everyone I know.  Yes, I’ve gone to www.nasarean.org and ordered up pins and wrist bands blazoned with the Arabic letter N or ن that ISIS is forcing Christians to wear, much like the yellow Star of David that the Nazis forced Jews to wear.  However, it’s not enough.  I keep asking myself why anyone isn’t shouting this from the rooftops.

I was hoping with the condemnation by Pope Francis more people would become outspoken but so far the silence is deafening.  There are snippets of information on the news, but in most cases they don’t acknowledge the men being slaughtered are Christian.  I was watching The Blaze TV this week and to his credit Glenn Beck played a small portion of the gruesome film of the latest group of Christians being gunned down by a firing squad or being beheaded.  I watched with one eye open.  The images and sounds of men being beheaded with knives was something I’ll never forget.  As ghastly as it was it should be seen by all.  It should be in every newspaper and on every news show.  Other tyrannical dictators did their dirty work in the dark.  These evil savages are making slick videos and distributing them across the globe.  What’s the matter with us!  Wake up!

A Coptic Christian priest was also on the show.  I was heartbroken when he said he couldn’t understand why his fellow Christians in America have not spoken up for them.  Beck made an interesting point.  If the slaughter was happening to Catholics, Baptists, or Methodists, would we pay attention?  So I thought I’d find out more about the Copts and what they believe.  Coptic means Egyptian.  The Christian community was founded by the apostle Mark who went to Egypt to evangelize the word of Christ around 42 to 62 AD.  At one time Egypt was 100% Christian.  The country switched from being a 100% Christian nation to a predominately Muslim nation after the Arab invasion around 639-642AD1.  They were given the same options we hear today – give up your Christian faith and embrace Islam, pay a huge tax, or die.  Their message hasn’t changed throughout the centuries.

In 1992 it was estimated there were over 9 million Coptic Christians in Egypt2.  They continued practicing their faith until the great “Arab Spring” when the Muslim Brotherhood took over the country.  Immediately persecution of Coptic Christians took on a whole new level as well as the destruction of ancient archeological finds, churches and religious artifacts.  It didn’t take Egyptians long to figure out this was not what they wanted and they tossed President Mohammed Morsi and the Brotherhood out of power.  President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a military man, is a much better replacement, but there is still much work to be done.

Coptic Christians observe seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Confession, Orders, Matrimony and Anointing of the Sick.  Divorce is not allowed.  Services are held in churches on Sunday mornings.  There are four parts to their service: 1. Preparation prayer – altar boys incense the church while chanting; 2. Offering – prayer is said over holy bread; 3. Preaching the Mass – priest reads sections of the Old and New Testament as well as giving a sermon; and 4. Reconciliation prayer. The fifth component is called the Believer’s Mass. This is when the congregation has communion3.  Sounds a lot like our services, doesn’t it?

Their feast days are also very similar.  Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, which is an official holiday in Egypt. It’s celebrated by the Pope in Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo in the Coptic language, which is almost extinct. Copts fast for 210 days of the year – Fast of the Nativity Christmas is 45 days, Fast of the Apostles, Fast of the Virgin Mary, Fast of Nineveh and of course Lent.  In addition to these fasts, they also fast every Wednesday and Friday. On Holy Thursday Copts visit and pray in seven Coptic Churches after Mass4.

They practice their religion just like us.  Their traditions are just like ours.  They are Christians—they are us.  Coptic Christians are being crucified, shot, and beheaded by ISIS.  Women and girls are being raped, forced into marriage with ISIS fighters, sold into sex slavery, and worse. We must get this message out.  Share it.  I would even urge you to watch the video of the massacres.  It’s easy to turn away, but we must see and we must speak up.  In the words of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer who preached against the Nazis and was later hanged in 1945, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us innocent.  Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

This weekend, our church will be selling pins and wristbands with the Arabic letter N or ن for a small price, but what a big message it sends.  We stand with the persecuted Christians.  We are people of the Cross.  We follow Jesus the Nasarean.  We belong to a large family of Christians that come in a variety of colors.  We are many but we are one.  I urge you to go to your Pastor and let him know it’s time to speak out and educate the congregation against these evil acts being done to our brothers and sisters simply for the crime of being a Christian.  Don’t let another day go by without taking a stand against evil because one day our grandchildren may ask us, Grandma? Grandpa?  Where were you?  Did you know?  Did you do anything to stop it?  Will you hang your head in shame or will you answer proudly, yes, I was there.  Yes, I knew.  Yes, I stood.

1 Encyclopedia Britannica, Egypt From The Islamic Conquest to 1250

2 The History of Coptic Christians in Egypt, an Overview of the Coptic Christians of Egypt, Lara Iskander and Jimmy Dunn

3 The History of Coptic Christians in Egypt, Coptic Sacraments, Coptic Services, Lara Iskander and Jimmy Dunn

4 The History of Coptic Christians in Egypt, Celebrations and other traditions, Lara Iskander and Jimmy Dunn